Desert RidersIn the Arabic countries of the Gulf the sport of camel racing was a popular pastime for occasions such as Eid and weddings, and was said to be an expression of happiness. In the modern day these events still take place on holidays, passed down from generation to generation and are an expression of the cultural heritage. But there is a dark side to the sport, as child jockeys, some as young as two, have been trafficked to work in the sport and been physically and sexually abused.

Desert Riders is an in-depth expose on the modern sport of camel racing, looking at the suffering of these child jockeys and the hypocrisy of the government and cultural institutions that promote the sport. In the 1980s camel racing grew popular and attracted investors and spectators throughout the United Arab Emirates. Racing camels routinely sold for millions of dollars each, and as the sport developed, modeled on European horse races, distances were increased and lightweight jockeys became desirable.

Camel jockey traffickers sourced vulnerable children from Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Sudan and elsewhere, bribing poor families with promises that their boys would be looked after, and director Vic Sarin does an admirable job of documenting these heartbreaking stories with the families themselves. It’s a gray issue as many of the traffickers were poor mothers themselves who believed they were doing the best for the families.

But when the children arrived the heartache began. Barbed wire enclosed camel camps trained the children, and their care was appalling. Many were left to sleep outside, underfed to keep their weight down, and physically and sexually abused. Some were injected with drugs to retard their growth and keep them small. These child jockeys were further tortured and hurt many times in the races themselves, and the interviewees tell of their ordeals, of kids that died when kicked by camels, of broken limbs and accidental decapitations.

Director Sarin teases out the full story in an admirable way, interviewing Western anti-slavery NGO workers that rescued the boy jockeys, and obtaining the scant stock footage of the races. New footage of the races and the camels make a visually stunning spectacle against the desert backdrop, and the shining metropolises of the UAE, which hint at the dichotomy between the old and the new worlds.

It’s this type of media attention that resulted in the 2005 UAE law that banned child jockeys, although conerns remain. Robot jockeys are now all the rage with camels, believe it or not, which enable the beasts to run fast with no danger to the riders. The happy ending, if there is one to this film, is the reuniting of the child jockeys with their families, often years after their removal, and the human rights foundations that have been created to stop the traffic in children in this industry.

 Desert Riders is unique in that it spends time to follow up with the children jockeys and see how they have re-integrated into their old lives. For thousands, childhoods were destroyed, and for many, the memories and heartache will remain for their entire lives. A riveting, heart wrenching documentary expertly executed, that will stay with you for a long time.


*** Stars

Rak Razam


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