‘One mistake and you’re dead’: Train surfers risk their lives for lethal ‘sport’

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South African train surfers ride on top of moving trains

'Staff Riding,' a short film by Marco Casino, shows the practice

Train surfers have to dodge 3,000-volt cables while on top of the train

CNN  — 

Chabedi Thulo looks at the camera proudly.

“In my mouth, I got stitches. In my legs, I got stitches too,” he announces.

Thulo is one of the subjects featured in “Staff Riding,” a five-minute digital documentary by Italian filmmaker Marco Casino about a subculture of train surfers in Katlehong – one of South Africa’s largest and poorest townships (“staff riding” is the local slang for train surfing).

The illegal “sport” attracts many of the community’s young men, who perform tricks and dance moves on top of moving trains. Casino notes that the trains, which deliver many of the township’s workers and students into nearby Johannesburg, plays a pivotal role in the region.

“People from the township use the train every day. There’s a really strong connection here to the trains, and I think train surfing is something that came out of that relationship,” he says.

The dangers are numerous for those that practice the activity. Train speeds aside, these young daredevils have to constantly dodge 3,000-volt cables overhead.

“They don’t really care about the risks. Some of them figure, ‘if I do this dangerous stuff on top of the train, my friends will respect me more,’” says Casino.

After stumbling upon an online video of the world’s 10 most dangerous sports that listed train surfing as near the top, Casino became curious about the practice. His inquires led him to Katlehong, where he spent a month getting to know the local community of staff riders. The film recently won Best Short Feature in the 2014 World Press Photo Multimedia Contest.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but what I found is that it’s really about social redemption,” he says.

It makes sense. Katlehong is hardly a land of opportunity, especially not for young people. Like many townships in East Rand, Katlehong played a prominent role during the anti-apartheid movement, though living conditions have changed little since apartheid ended.

According to the 2011 census, the youth unemployment rate in Ekurhuleni (the municipality of which Katlehong is a part) is 37%.

“A lot of these guys are really young, from 15 to 25 years old. Most of them are unemployed and have traumatic family situations. This is a way for them to socially reinvent themselves,” says Casino.

Some seem to use the practice as a vent their frustrations.

“It’s a way you can express your feelings,” Thulo says in the film.

“You want to take out the anger. Instead of beating someone or robbing them, you just express your anger.”

Casino notes that many young people have lost one or both parents, either due to AIDS, drugs or general poverty.

“A lot of the guys I met grew up with their grandparents, who are old and don’t really have the energy or power to stop them doing this,” he says.

Though Casino shot footage from atop some of the trains, he admits that he was “gripping the irons.”

“If you make one little mistake, you’re dead,” he says.

“The last day of filming, two guys died while train surfing. I also met a lot of people that got injured and survived, which is not so common, because most of the time, they die.”

The film features one such survivor: Sibusiso Linda, a sweet-faced, ambitious youth who dreams of working in advertising, and who unfortunately has suffered multiple amputations following a staff riding accident.

“Most of them don’t even realize the value of their own lives,” says Casino.

“For me, realizing that was one of the worst parts of this project.”

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