In search of glory, Yemen athlete drowns in Mediterranean trying to reach Europe

DUBAI: Slim and with a tight-trimmed beard, Yemeni Kung Fu champion Hilal al-Haj dreamed of finding athletic glory in Europe, but a risky sea journey to get there ended in tragedy.

The 25-year-old athlete drowned in the Mediterranean after being swept away as he attempted to swim from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Melilla last week.

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His family in Yemen's rebel-held capital Sanaa was expected on Friday (Sep 27) to bury the 2011 Yemen Kung Fu champion, who had also racked up a series of medals from Asian and Arab championships.

"He was looking for a country that would appreciate his talent and recognise his value as a human being and athlete," his older brother Saeed said.

"He loved life, he detested war," he told AFP by phone.

Saeed saw his brother just hours before he headed to Morocco, where on Sep 16 he attempted the dangerous swim to the Spanish enclave.

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The athlete was proud of his heritage, his brother said, but competing in a country pushed to the brink of famine by a years-long war between the government and rebels had brought challenges.

Yemen was rife with "contempt" and "injustice", Saeed said, adding his brother was treated unfairly by the Huthi rebels who took over the capital in 2014 despite taking no side in Yemen's conflict.

After returning to Sanaa from a championship in Azerbaijan, where Haj won third place representing Yemen, he expected to be celebrated by rebels.

"The answer was painful. They told him that no one had asked of him to raise the flag of Yemen," Saeed said.

'POWERFUL WAVE'

Years of war have made leaving and entering Yemen nearly impossible, but Haj faced even greater difficulties when attempting to cross over the heavily fortified land barrier surrounding Melilla, on the northern coast of Morocco.

After two months of failed attempts, he decided to swim for it, his brother said.

"It was a short distance. People before him have tried and succeeded," he told AFP.

"My brother was athletic, it seemed like it would be easy, but tragedy struck and he was swept away by a powerful wave."

A friend accompanying Haj on the swim who managed to make it safely to the Spanish enclave said the journey was "extremely difficult".

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