When Ari Sitar jumps over the walls of his city, when he tenses every muscle in his body, he feels free.
“With parkour, you control your body, your mind, and you forget about all your problems,” he says.
And the problems are many for the residents of the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which has been a bone of contention between the central government of Iraq and the Kurdish regional authorities in the north. Parts of the city have now also become a battleground in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Two years ago, Ari, an ethnic Kurd, was practising Taekwondo when he came across videos of David Bell, the founder of parkour which is also known as free-running. As he saw the artist running, climbing, swinging, and vaulting, Ari instantly knew that he had been doing the wrong sport all along.
“I realised Taekwondo is only about fighting,” says the 22-year-old. “But I don’t want to fight. I want to feel far from war.”
Ari strove to imitate the athletes he saw in the videos. He gathered a few friends and they met after Taekwondo practice to train behind the sports centre. When more and more boys came by to watch and join in, the manager of the centre gave them a room to practise in.
Today, about 40 boys meet several times a week. Every Friday afternoon, they practise in the ancient citadel in the centre of Kirkuk. Believed to have been built by King Ashurnasirpal II between 884 and 858 BC, the citadel has housed a Jewish temple, a church, and several mosques. Over the centuries, the site has deteriorated. Now, piles of rubble lie between semi-standing structures.
Ari’s group of kids is as diverse as the ruins of the citadel. They come from the different communities that live in Kirkuk: Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and Christians. Over time, they have learned each other’s languages and become friends.
“I feel like I brought them together,” Ari says.
This is no small achievement. Some 241km north of Baghdad, Kirkuk is one of the most multiethnic places in Iraq. The communities are wary of each other. They’ve fought bloodily in the past and know that flare-ups are never far away. Now, the front-line with ISIL lies just a few kilometres south of the city.
Ari is from the neighbourhood of Shorjah. It is predominately Kurdish populated, and was known as a place of resistance under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. His father was a Peshmerga, a Kurdish militia fighter. When Saddam Hussein’s troops suspected the family of being engaged in political activities, they were forced to flee. When the regime was overthrown in 2003, they returned to Kirkuk and built a new home.
Ari is aware of the struggle to overcome suspicion towards the other sects in the city.
“I was scared of Arabs when I was growing up,” he says. “But when I got to know people outside the Kurdish community, I saw the good in them.”
In his team, he leaves no room for prejudice.
“Whenever there is a fight in the group, I explain to them that we are all brothers,” Ari says, “and to make it work, we have to live together in peace.”