Middle East

Gaza youths find escape in free running

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Media captionFree runners in Gaza show their Parkour moves

"I've broken more bones than I care to remember" smiles 22-year-old Mohammed Jamal Jahbir shortly before he back flips off a 3m (10ft) high wall, charges towards another, clings to it like Spiderman and then vaults over the top.

As if Gaza was not dangerous enough.

In a crumbling cemetery in the southern Gaza Strip, Mohammed is one of group of young men in the tiny Palestinian Territory practising parkour.

The sport, which has its origins in France and is sometimes called Free Running, is part gymnastics, part break-dancing, part climbing, and part extreme cross-country running.

"It's a fast moving sport using all of your athletic abilities to get from A to B as quickly and as smoothly as possible," says Mohammed.

But it is not easy.

"It's dangerous and risky. You have to be very self-confident," says Abdullah Mamoun with a crooked smile.

"Three years ago I really damaged my teeth doing a jump badly. You have to know what you're doing. You can't hesitate."

Image caption All you need is a pair of trainers and a little imagination

The sport has received increased attention after a number of parkour professionals were used to perform stunts in films like the James Bond movie, Casino Royale, and the Bourne trilogy.

And in Gaza there is no shortage of damaged and decaying buildings to provide a dramatic backdrop for the parkour team.

The cemetery in Khan Younis where the team often practise has walls and tombstones potted with bullets holes, testimony to all manner of conflict there over the decades.

Youth unemployment

Gaza is not an easy place to grow up. If you are young, life can be pretty dull.

The United Nations and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimate that almost 70% of Gaza's population of 1.6 million is under the age of 25.

The UN says youth unemployment is more than 50%.

The economy in Gaza has been badly damaged by Israel's continuing blockade of the territory, which was tightened after the Islamist movement Hamas came to power in 2007.

Image caption The cemetery in Khan Younis where the team often practise is crumbling

And while it has been in government, Hamas has shut down a number of centres for young people.

Everywhere you go you see young people hanging around with time on their hands.

"Lots of people in Gaza are just wasting their lives," says 23-year-old Jihad Abu Sultan.

"They waste their time doing bad things like smoking or taking drugs. They waste their time with useless things."

At least for a few, parkour has provided an escape.

"Parkour helps me get away from everyday life," Abdullah says. "When I first started five years ago, it helped me get out of the depression I felt living in Gaza."

And watching the three young men spin and twist, silhouetted against an azure sky, you certainly get a sense of their release.

"This sport gives me freedom," Mohammed adds.

"There are no limits. You feel that you can cross any obstacle. You feel nothing can stop you."

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