Free Syria’s Sports Outside the Pitch

Free Syria’s Sports Outside the Pitch

Enab Baladi Enab Baladi
EnabBalad-football-jaysh-Alislam-Damascus.jpg

Players in al-Jaysh football club in eastern Ghouta, Damascus, during training, November 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Syria has, for decades, had skilled sports players and was able to reach advanced stages in international competitions thanks to its prowess in individual sports that rely on the players’ effort and own experience. This was despite the widespread nepotism in appointments to administrative positions and in selection for national teams and the domination of the military over sports bodies.

This was the case before the Syrian revolution. But despite the liberation of some regions from regime control, the sports scene has deteriorated, especially as the war has resulted in the collapse of the infrastructure of sports facilities, such as stadiums and basketball courts, as well as the absence of the security required for the practice of many sports. A number of Syrian sports players have been arrested or killed, while others resorted to moving to other countries to stop the continuing decline of their skills and fitness.

These areas have tried to resist the impact of the war. They established bodies and sports federations and organized local tours and championships with limited resources. These attempts are a glimmer of hope among the atrocities of the war.

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Enab Baladi Investigative Team

General Commission for Sports… Attempts to Find a Unifying Framework

Over the last five years, the “liberated” sports scene in Syria has gradually evolved. It started with the efforts of the Federation of Free Syrian Sports Players, which was founded in Cairo in 2012, then the Sports Federation of Free Syria was founded in August 2015, which expanded its representation to form the General Commission for Youth and Sports to become the widest representative entity within Syria.

The Commission was not the only such entity during the last few years. Others include the Commission of Free Syrian Athletes for Athletics founded in early 2015, which includes 4000 sports players and formed several unions and committees. Another body, Athletes for Syria, was founded in Cairo in 2014.

Ayman Qashit, an athlete currently based in Sweden, founded the Free Syrian Union in mid-2015, which includes the Syrian Youth Team, which sponsored some activities in the countryside of Aleppo, eastern al-Ghouta and Hay al-Waer. However, its work came to an end after four months, with some sports players joining the Commission while others remained independent.

What is the General Commission for Youth and Sports?

The General Commission has sponsored the sports movement in Syria since March 2014, in cooperation with sports federations within it. According to its internal regulations, which Enab Baladi obtained a copy of, it is composed of a General Assembly and an Executive Committee that consists of 13 members, in addition to technical and executive committees. These manage the clubs affiliated to the Commission and sports competitions, in collaboration with local councils and some Syrian organizations such as the Civil Defense, the Syrian Red Cross and the Free Syrian Police. The Commission has also collaborated with some radio stations, newspapers and Syrian websites.

Each executive committee is composed of 11 members, while the union includes five to seven members.

The chairman of the General Commission for Youth and Sports, Oroua Quanawati estimated, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the Commission includes 150 people, not counting the technical committee, which includes 200 people.

The executive offices are distributed among five regions in Syria: Aleppo, Idlib, the countryside of Damascus, Homs and Deraa. They work with the technical committees for each sport. The executives also manage the training centers and some sports competitions within Syrian camps.

The Commission has 11 unions for football, handball, backgammon, swimming, volleyball, judo, karate, wrestling, lao Chi Kung Fu, kickboxing and the Union for People with Disabilities.

 

Diagram showing the structure of the General Commission for Youth and Sports (Enab Baladi)

Diagram showing the structure of the General Commission for Youth and Sports (Enab Baladi)

Quanawati also says that the Commission has tried to work within the northern countryside of Homs and the countryside of Hama “but the intensity of the battles stopped us”, admitting their absence in the countryside of Hama in particular, in which some teams and clubs are competing in volleyball with teams from Idlib, while teams from Saham and the Golan in the countryside of Quneitra play with teams that are managed by the Commission in Deraa.

A Memorandum of Understanding with the Interim Government is Not Enough

The Commission signed a memorandum of understanding with the Interim Government in 2015, becoming administratively part of the Ministry of Culture. According to Quanawati, the Commission met with the President of the Interim Government, Dr. Jawad Abu Hattab, who formed the government in July 2016. He confirmed that the Ministry’s areas of work are still valid until the Government establishes what is known as the “Commission of Culture and Heritage” whose mission will be to complete the work of the ministry.

The Government granted official status to the decisions and publications approved by the Commission. The Commission is now waiting for completion of the procedures to establish the new entity under the Abu Hattab Government. However, this is not enough because the Syrian Opposition Coalition, led by Mohamad Yahya Maktabi, is still in charge of the issue of trade unions and federations. The Commission considers this a fragmentation of the work, which should be joint.

Abdul Rauf al-Amir, the Commission’s coordinator in Qatar, said that the work will not be organized until there is mutual recognition between the Interim Government and the Coalition. A large budget should also be allocated for employees inside Syria and for reconstructing the stadiums. He said, “The biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is the Coalition and its contradictory decisions”.

Coalition Approves Olympic Committee Then Annuls Decision Three Months Later

On 3 June 2016, the Coalition approved the establishment of a temporary Olympic Committee “with the aim of regulating all the sports bodies and Syrian sports players in Syria and abroad, and to represent Syria in Arab and international competitions”. But the coalition annulled the decision after three months “in order to maintain the unity of Syrian sports”.

Enab Baladi spoke to Mohamed Yahya Maktabi, who is assigned by the Coalition to deal with the issue of trade unions and federations. Enab Baladi asked about the reasons for the annulment of the decision. He explained that it was cancelled “after having verified that it won’t be able to achieve any of the missions assigned to it”. He considered that it was “an attempt to obstruct the participation of the regime in the Rio de Janeiro championships, which took place in Brazil in August 2016, as a temporary Olympic Committee for three months”.

Oroua Quanawati, head of the General Commission for Youth and Sports

Oroua Quanawati, head of the General Commission for Youth and Sports

The chairman of the General Commission, Quanwati, said, “All countries prepare for the Olympics four years before they take place, and if it is new in sports, a country would start preparing at least one year before. But the coalition formed the Olympic Committee three months before the games and included people that have nothing to do with sports, and this was what was later confirmed.”

An Umbrella Body for Sports or a Merger of Expertise?

 

The General Commission includes a large number of sports players, while other skilled players are not part of it. That is why the Commission is seeking to hold a conference in order to expand its activities and welcome those sports players. It is also holding regular meetings with the director of trade unions and federations in the National Coalition, Yahya Maktabi, who believes that the issue of sports should be dealt with by a national institution according to established standards and rules.

“The institution cannot be built with unexperienced people and sporadic efforts”, said Maktabi, stating that the institution should be led by people who have already held leadership positions in sports, who are not part of the regime and who have a good reputation and status. He also considers that the General Commission for Youth and Sports is the parent organization that has done a lot for sports “but it’s not the largest, there are important people outside it, such as Khalid Faraj, who is a world champion in wrestling, and the Syrian and Arab champion Adnan Kaddour and others”.

In light of the obstacles encountered in the field of sports, the institution is trying “to overcome these difficulties”, according to Maktabi, who said, “This domain is important, considering that it is one of the faces of civic work, and the accusations against the revolution and revolutionaries of being terrorists and extremists”. He added, “The work is difficult and our role is to facilitate the convergence of points of view so we can build one unifying body founded on our commonalities and not on our differences.”

From the viewpoint of the chairman of the General Commission, the exceptional situation of Syria requires a deeper look at the issue of sports from a new perspective, calling for all sports players to participate in expanding the Commission “in order for it to be bigger and to include more people in unions, committees and the Commission’s leadership. Reproducing the same ideas will not lead to any result, and observing from afar will not solve any problem.”

Quanawati added, “We have worked in difficult and unprecedented conditions. We have experienced failure and success. We made some mistakes, until we reached a joint success. There will come a day when we hand over our responsibilities and become ordinary members of the Commission. But it is not right that each time someone leaves the Commission, they criticize and attack our work. This approach will not help build Syria and it won’t benefit the revolution in any way”.

Disagreement with the Coalition in the Absence of International Recognition

Yahya Maktabi, responsible for unions and federations in the Syrian National Coalition

Yahya Maktabi, responsible for unions and federations in the Syrian National Coalition

The Commission is still not internationally recognized, nor is any sports institution that is not part of the Syrian regime. There are different points of view – Maktabi considers that founding a strong recognized institution by the Coalition “would enable it try to get recognition, provide opportunities to sports players who are part of the revolution, and participate in regional and international competitions.”

Quanawati considers that international recognition is exclusively a political issue, since “it is not a matter of sending documents to the international federation, which will not intervene unless there is a political decision. We sent several documents to international federations since 2014. These documents included names of martyrs and detainees and other issues, but we did not receive any response”.

Some people talk about the possibility of requesting recognition as a “legal issue”, through dealing with lawyers, but this can cost tens of thousands of dollars. “It is not possible for any organization to support us in this regard, we do not have a legal office because we cannot provide and pay the skilled employees needed”, said Quanawati.

Financial Support and Sponsorship Contracts for the General Commission of Sports

Some local independent organizations and radio stations have supported the Commission’s projects since its establishment. This includes Nasaem Syria Radio,

which supported sports activities in Aleppo and Idlib, Watan Radio, which launched a championship in Idlib, the Moubadir Group, which gave funding for the football team, The Day After organization, which sponsored a football championship in Kilis in Turkey, and Space of Hope, which sponsored a Wushu Kung Fu team to participate in a championship in the Balkans in June 2016.

Quanawati explains that sponsorship is not permanent. The Commission presents a number of projects to the donor, from which the donor can choose. “They don’t care if there’s a shortage somewhere. Besides, all the donors are humanitarian organizations, they are not specialized in sports. Thus, we implement the project and then we deliver the invoices to the donor. When we receive an amount of money to participate in a championship or to launch an academy, we cannot use it in something else unless we get the consent of the donor. If they refuse, we have to give back the money”.

Quanawati adds that the Commission is sometimes confronted with lengthy procedures and delays by organizations in providing sponsorship because of circumstances that are beyond these organizations’ control. “This creates a kind of tension among Syrian sports players”.

The unions’ members do not receive any financial remuneration; neither do executive office members, who only receive remuneration when they supervise a project in Syria. According to Quanawati, remuneration is between 100 and 125 dollars per month.

The Commission’s Biggest Donors

The Syrian Regional Program

The Syrian Regional Program, run by the company “Cominex”, sponsored the festivals of al-Waer and al-Ghouta in 2016 and two championships outside Syria in karate and swimming, in addition to the Luxembourg Karate championships in April 2016 and the Karate team camp in the Netherlands in July 2016.

Quanawati draws attention to projects, currently being considered by donors, to create three unions and sports activities for people with disabilities in Azaz, Atarib and Deraa. They also aim to create chess centers distributed across the Syrian liberated areas, in addition to the organization of a general football league (first and second divisions) and eight football-training centers for kids. “All these projects were supposed to start in early October 2016 but are still in the process of preparation”.

As-Sankari Organization

Abd Rahman Dadam, the CEO of As-Sankari, said in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the organization supported the project of a national football team but their funding stopped earlier this year.

sankari

Quanawati said that the organization stopped funding the project, and added that he looked forward to reviving the team, which was formed in Kilis in Turkey in May 2015 after a joint decision between the Syrian Football Association and the General Commission. The sponsorship stopped after “administrative problems and the absence of enough support to develop the team. This caused administrative and organizational disagreements that obstructed the project’s progress.”

The organization has also supported the Commission’s executive committees since their establishment but stopped its funding two months ago “because of the restrictions on remittances”, according to Dadam, who added that the “Commission did not receive the funds for itself but was acting as an intermediary for the executive committees to which we were transferring the funds”.

“Baytna Syria” Organization

This organization has funded sports centers for children in four districts in Aleppo, according to Assaad al-Ashi, the organization’s director, who told Enab Baladi that the funding was received “to secure safe places that are far from the bombing and develop children’s skills in a beneficial way”. The organization has not sponsored the Commission’s activities and projects outside Syria.

Al-Ashi explains that the organization will launch a new grant mid-December,

baytna-syria

which will be beneficial “for many organizations, including the Commission.” He noted that the funds are supposed to arrive in mid-October 2017, while the Commission is working to launch a sports project for Syrian children in eight training centers in Idlib.

In a new move, the Commission is expanding its cooperation with Syrian organizations working in the field of education in order to organize sports sessions in schools, according to Quanawati, “The sports teacher can be from the Commission but the institution is responsible for his salary”. This project has yet to be implemented.

Syrian Sports Through the Eyes of Syrian Officials and Committees

The unions that are part of the General Commission have their own independent internal regulations and are not obliged to abide by the Commission’s internal rules. Enab Baladi spoke to some of the unions’ heads and officials about their experiences over the past few years, the real impact of the Syrian war, as well as their vision of how this field could be developed.

The chairman of the Syrian Sports Federation for the Disabled, Mamoun Shoun, said that the union was founded and joined the General Commission of Sports in March 2016 and has participated in several tournaments. He called for supporting the Commission, building playgrounds and gyms in Syrian towns to help sports players to continue their training, and establishing integrated sports schools and institutions. Furthermore, he appealed for the delegation of the Commission to be given the right by the Coalition to speak on behalf of free sports players and coordinate their participation in international competition with the other sport unions.

Chairman of the Syrian Sports Federation for the Disabled, Mamoun Shoun

Chairman of the Syrian Sports Federation for the Disabled, Mamoun Shoun

Shoun considers the foundation of the union “a necessity”, especially after the increase in the number of disabled people due to the war. He insisted on the fact that “those who were made disabled by Bashar’s bombing will carry on their careers and will not give up the fight.”

According to a member of the Syrian Football Federation, Yusuf Rabii Hasan, “The Commission has played a major role over the past three years and it must be said that we did a great job under constant bombardment. There is no doubt that our work will be more organized based on a determined action plan to promote football. I hope that the union will accomplish its mission in Syria to cater to the the needs of clubs in the coming days”.

Thaer al-Awadh, a member of the Commission’s Executive Committee and the head of the Syrian Kickboxing Federation, said that the union is trying to cope with the administrative workload despite the difficulties and long distances and the lack of means of communication between regions. “No other sports organization is facing the problems that Syrian institutions are facing.” He expressed his strong sense of pride in the unions’ achievements and said “while we will encounter many difficulties, we may not find support for our work plan but this will not prevent us from reviving the real spirit of Syrian sports among young free Syrians despite the current military and security conditions.”

The secretary of the Syrian Swimming and Aquatic Sports Federation, Maysir Mahmoud, believes that the General Commission has done great work in embracing as many sports players as possible and uniting the different sports entities to form a leading national institution. According to him, the issue of funding is an obstacle for Syrian sports inside and outside Syria.

Moussa Abu Oun, a member of the Executive Committee of Deraa province, describes the work of the General Commission as “a historic achievement”. He called on the Commission to form an executive committee in all the liberated areas. He added, “We have granted 30 licenses to clubs in the committee and the number is rising, which demonstrates the successful cooperation between sports players and officials.”

Difficulties in Reviving Syrian Handball

The Handball Federation is facing great difficulties in reviving this game, which was one of the most prominent games in Syria a few years ago. The president of the union, Rafe Bajbuj, told Enab Baladi that the main problem is the fact that handball players are either outside Syria or trapped in the regime-controlled areas.

President of the Handball Union, Rafe Bajbuj

President of the Handball Union, Rafe Bajbuj

Qatar has given nationality to a number of well-known Syrian handball players including three representing the Qatari team in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Kamaluddin Mlah, Amine Zakkar and Hadi Hamdoun.

What has made it hard to revive the game is that it was widespread in cities but not rural areas. “The game requires gyms, equipment and resources. Cities such as Deir Ez-Zor, Raqqa and Hama were strongholds of handball in Syria in the past.” According to Bajbuj, the only handball matches held have been in the city of Deraa between the two clubs in the city.

The Syrian Handball Federation is awaiting a response from the Qatari Union, which expressed its willingness to cooperate with the Syrian national team. Bajbuj said that he had not received any response as of end of October 2016.

The estimated number of men and youth in the union is more than a hundred. The union is currently studying some projects that the General Commission promised to fund.

 

The Most Prominent Sports Players in the Commission and those who Left

The Commission brings together over 5000 sports players who joined in 2015 and 2016, according to its officials

The former trainer of the national team and “Al Jaysh” karate club, Imad Zin Eddin, joined the General Commission together with the handball coach Abderraouf al-Amir, the football players Firas Teet and Yusuf Rabii Hasan, international referee Mohamed Wael Jbara, secretary of the Arab Syrian Kickboxing Federation Thaer al-Awadh, member of the Wushu Kung Fu Union Ala Eddin Tamr Dan, and former member of the football union, Walid Mhidi.

Some sports players decided to leave the Commission in order to focus on their sports activities or for other reasons such as the sports broadcaster Aqeel Hussein and other former members of the football federation including the two referees, Murad Kikhia and Shaker Hamidi, and the trainer Abdul Qader Abdul Hayy at the beginning of 2016.

Hamidi and Abdul Hayy established the Association of Syrian Clubs in Turkey, in collaboration with player Ahmed Ali, but the association was eventually closed down.  Other footballers decided to leave the Commission due to “the Commission’s practices”, as they claim.

Detainees and Victims Among Sports Players

The Free Syrian Sports Players’ Union, which was founded in Cairo in 2012, began reporting abuses against sports players, such as detention and murder, and the destruction of sports facilities such as gyms and stadiums. The work was then taken over by the Media Office of the Free Syrian Sports Federation, which later became part of the General Commission for Sports and Youth. In 2013 and 2014, other sport entities played a major role in documenting these abuses, such as the Mujahedeen Sports Players’ Association and the Sports Players’ Organization for Syria.

According to the latest statistics Enab Baladi obtained, the number of sports players who have become war victims has reached 390 from the outbreak of the Syrian revolution until the end of November 2016. They are from different specialties and age groups, including sports players and officials. Some of them were killed in detention centers, such as the al-Wehdah footballer Iyad Qwaider, the player and coach of the Syrian national judo team Abdelkader Hegazy, the al-Karamah footballer Jehad Kassab, the Syrian cycling champion Ahmed Lahlah, the al-Wehdah basketball player Wael Walid Kany, the al-Karamah basketball player Rudin Ajk, and the national wrestling champion, Malek Khalil Haj Hamad.

The young al-Shaala footballer, Mahmud Jawabra, was one of the first victims. He was killed in Deraa on 18 March 2011, followed by dozens of sports players who were shot during peaceful demonstrations, most notably Juma Dawri, the founder of the Association of Free Syrian Sports Players, the swimmer Abdul Salam Fayez Hamad, the two al-Etihad footballers Salem Hijazi and Zakaria al-Youssef, and volleyball player in the national team and al-Shaala Rizk Kotaifan, the al-Wathba football player Tariq Antabli, the Syrian ping pong referee Samir Swaidan, the national karate team member Fares Masarweh, sports broadcaster Hossam al-Mousse, international wrestler, Mustafa Nakadla and others.

It is impossible to count the number of detained sports players, since some of them were arrested and released. According to the statistics of the General Commission for Youth and Sports, nearly 100 are still in detention including Syrian chess champion Rania Abbasik, who was arrested with her husband and five children, basketball player Sameh Sorour, and national football players Amer Haj Hashim, Tariq Abdul Haq, Muhammad Haj Sulaiman and Ahmad Ayek.

In addition, other sports players were arrested and released including the national football coach Hisham Khalaf and football players Zein Fandi, Firas Teet and Mohamed Knys. After 21 years of arbitrary detention, the captain of the Syrian equestrian team, Adnan Kassar, was freed in mid-2014.

Ten Child Athletes Killed by Russian Air Strikes in Aleppo

Since the beginning of this year up until November 2016, many young sports players were killed in Aleppo and in the surrounding rural areas, especially those who belonged to sports centers and schools. They include Mouayad Hajji, Mohammed Riaz and Ghazwan Ali Khalil from the Aleppo football-training center, killed on 25 January 2016.

Two brothers, Abdulbasit and Ahmed Malas, who trained at the local judo training center, were killed in May 2016.

Two brothers Zakaria and Abdullah al-Jumaili, who trained at al-Rowed School for Wushu Kung Fu, were killed on 31 May 2016.

Ahmed Marimani, from the karate training center, was killed on 18 August 2016.

Another two children, Lujain and Malek Anjarini from the taekwondo training center, were killed on 13 October 2016.

Lujain and Malek Anjarini

Lujain and Malek Anjarini

Sport Facilities Targeted in Syria in the Last Six Months

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the widespread destruction of Syrian sport facilities has been captured on camera, including stadiums and gyms in Idlib and its countryside. Most notably, the bombing has targeted the Harasta and Douma stadiums in Rif Dimashq. In addition, the Syrian regime has transformed the Abbasiyyin and Jalaa stadiums in Damascus, the Hamdania stadium in Aleppo, the Deraa and Deir Zor stadiums and the sports city in Lathikia into detention centers and heliports.

 

Sport activity in Idlib countryside on Playground - November 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Sport activity in Idlib countryside on Playground – November 2016 (Enab Baladi)

According to the latest statistics from mid-2016 until November, airstrikes have targeted sports facilities in the city of Idlib, as well as Saraqib stadium in the countryside, some training centers in Aleppo, the offices of the executive committees of both Aleppo and Idlib, the Wushu Kung Fu training center (more than once) based in the Pioneers of Peace martial arts school, the karate training center in the eastern districts of Aleppo, the chess center during the al-Waar Festival in Homs, the small Harasta football stadium and the kickboxing and combat games lounges in Sarmada in Idlib province.

Uday Hussein, a member of the administrative board of Saraqib sports club in the province of Idlib, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that sports facilities have suffered a lot of damage due to the constant bombardment, asserting that, “The soccer stadium in the city was bombed three times by air and the club’s center was bombed by artillery”. He added, “Nevertheless, we are working together as one family, represented by the General Commission, and we have achieved real successes in northern Syria.”

International Achievements of the Syrian “Free” Teams

The national swimming team, which is part of the General Commission for Youth and Sports, won three bronze medals at the Qatar International Swimming Championship in 2015, while the international swimmer, Anas Mahmoud, won the silver medal in free swimming in Qatar in 2016.

Moreover, the national Wushu Kong team won six medals in 2016 (one gold, one silver and four bronze medals) at the Balkan Championships in mid-2016. The gold medal went to Alaa al-Din Moustafa who plays taolu, while Rudy Khalil won a silver medal in Wushu and both Osama Makari and Mohammed al-Kadra won two bronze medals in Sanshou.

The international Samsun Championships in Turkey, which took place in October 2016, were considered a great opportunity for the national Wushu Kung Fu. Syrian players won 13 medals, which went to the following players: Shyar Ali (two gold and one bronze), Alaa Mustafa (gold), junior athlete Mohammed Sharm (two gold), Mohammad Mustafa (silver), junior athlete Majd Sheikh Nayef (silver), Mohammed Zuhair al-Mustafa (bronze), Mohammad Mustafa and Essam Aisha (two silver medals in Wushu), and Osama Makari (silver).

Junior player Majd Sheikh Nayef wins a silver medal at the Samsun international championships in Turkey, 29 October 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Junior player Majd Sheikh Nayef wins a silver medal at the Samsun international championships in Turkey, 29 October 2016 (Enab Baladi)

In Karate, the “free” Syrian team won a gold medal thanks to Ali Baroudi and Ilham Abdelghafoor, who won a bronze medal at the Athens international championships in 2013. Baroudi went on to win a bronze at the Luxembourg junior athlete in 2016. Other Syrians players who strongly support the Syrian revolution have won various medals with clubs in Sweden, Belgium and Germany, such as Mohamed Nur Shanan, Amar Ayub and Ahmed Zahir.

Sports That Fighters Practice During Battles

Some fighters do not only stick to the kind of morning exercises they practice in the camps, including warm-up and push-ups that help them stay fit, but they also work to strengthen their  wrestling skills as well.

Between Competitions and Battles

Martial arts are popular among boys in early adolescence, in particular karate, kickboxing and judo, in addition to weightlifting and bodybuilding.

With the beginning of the revolution in Syria and the transition to the armed uprising, the choices of these youth differed. While some emigrated to realize their dreams and gain more trophies and medals, others preferred to stay to use their skills on the battlefield, where some of them met their death.

Mahmoud Adnan Kadour, an athlete and fighter from Kafr Nabl in the countryside of Idlib, was killed on the frontline on 12 November while we were preparing this report.

Sports Activities Attract Fighters

The General Commission for Sports, founded in northern Syria in mid-2015, has played a crucial role in the revival of about 32 sports clubs offering a variety of sports. A large proportion of the people who attend these clubs are fighters. Mohamed Mari Sheikh al-Haddadin, a referee, tells us after arbitrating one of the matches in Idlib, that fighters constituted the majority of participants.

All the fighters interviewed by Enab Baladi said that they play sports, especially football, in their free time, as a form of entertainment and also to maintain fitness, which is reflected in conflict. One fighter, Abdulrahman, aged 23 years old said, “What benefited me in the battles in Latakia was football. We were running long distances and walked for three or four days.”

The fighters in military camps are trained in sports that increase their fitness levels and their ability to fight such as running and weight lifting. These movements vary according to the fighter’s function, whether elite commando, mortar launcher or “PKC”. Combat sports are rarely used in training because of the lack of direct combat in most battles.

Obeida, a fighter aged 29 years old, has a blue belt in karate. He says.  “My experience and that of my friends in karate helped me when capturing prisoners. At the beginning of the revolution, when we were conducting street battles in the cities, one professional blow was enough to make an enemy fighter lose consciousness and land him in the trunk of a car.”

In special military camps like those for elite commandos, they only accept fighters with high fitness levels and who meet minimum height and width requirements. This is what made Ahmed Khchini, an expert in « Muay Thai » (street fighting). move from Daraya to the countryside of Idlib, temporarily putting on hold his plans to open a Muay Thai club in order to train fighters at the request of many factions.

Khchina had opened a small club in Daraya during the siege, which about 40 young men attended. He told us that the sport helps fighters to offload the stress they are under, “All those who play this sport are calm and psychologically stable, along with having high physical fitness levels.”

Some fighters think that combat requires certain essential skills like running and that are a kind of luxury. Others insist that combat sports play a more crucial role in armed combat than ever before.

Do Women in the “Liberated” North Play Sports?

Which sports do women in the “liberated” North practice? The answer that we repeatedly heard during the preparation of this report is shrouded in an ominous mystery.

Previously, coordination took place between sports clubs and centres in the provinces and the central sports federation, which covers different sports. Women participated but this was confined to mostly non-veiled women because of religious and social factors.

Many women sports players became famous such as Ghada Chaa, Mouna Shuhaiber and Leila Darwish. Some of these women even participated in international championships and won prizes. Women’s participation is considered one of the positive achievements of the sports federation despite allegations of bias and corruption during the selection process.

The karate player, Ilham Abdelghafoor, wins a medal at the Athens international championships (Internet)

The karate player, Ilham Abdelghafoor, wins a medal at the Athens international championships (Internet)

The 18-year-old swimmer, Yusra Mardini, reached the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in the summer of 2016, after crossing the Greek sea and seeking refuge in Germany. Mardini spoke about how she helped the boat that she had boarded along with her sister to reach the shores of Greece after 30 minutes of swimming in the open sea, saving the lives of about 20 passengers.

Many of the people that we spoke to believe that women’s dress and appearance is an impediment to their participation in sports. Practicing sport “makes women lose the necessary modesty”. Even if she manages to participate with her hijab it remains difficult to participate in international trials.

Hajer, a 30 year-old trainer at one of Idlib’s clubs, says that she wants to do gymnastics but that it is impossible because she wears niqab.

In general, women do not participate in sports activities and competitions that are held in the liberated areas.

Oroua Quanawati, chairman of the Public Federation for Youth and Sports, told us that a limited number of areas in the “liberated” North have sports activities for women, such as Maabar Beb Salama. In these places, these activities are restricted to children and young women (13-14 years old), who are trained by a female coach. This is the only female representation inside Syria. Outside the country, Syrian female sports players have participated in several international championships.

Women sports training centres in Maabar contain gym equipment and aerobics material. But they lack the usual additional facilities such as saunas because these require a large amount of energy and fuel.

Umm Salwan, a sports instructor, works in a women-only club in Marat al-Nomaan in Idlib, which is funded by the organization « Darna ». She said that the club offers sports and electronic equipment along with aerobics classes. She explains that the club is open for at least five hours a day.

Hajar, trainer in a similar club in Idlib, says that the lack of movement and activity currently experienced by women has caused them to gain weight, making it necessary to establish centres and clubs like these where women can find an outlet and maintain their fitness.

Sports such as bodybuilding are unlike cultural activities and educational courses because they require regular effort and practice, which is difficult to provide in the current circumstances. Will we one day find a different answer to our question “Which sports do women practice?”

Festivals and Championships for Adults and Children: The Heart of Eastern Al-Ghouta Pulses with Sports Activities

While the daily shelling kills dozens of victims, eastern al-Ghouta is pulsing with sports activities sponsored by institutions, organizations and clubs. They include both individual and group sports for participants from different age groups, despite the many obstacles imposed by the siege.

Some clubs organize regular activities for school students and other groups, some supported and sponsored by various institutions. Sports players run clubs for skills development while the Executive Committee of the Public Federation for Youth and Sports in Syria runs a variety of events, which recently culminated in the biggest sports festival in eastern al-Ghouta in early November 2016.

Public Sports Federation Gathers Most of al-Ghouta’s Sports Centres

Nine months ago, on 27 February 2016, the Executive Committee was founded in eastern al-Ghouta. In elections in which local city and municipal councils participated, sports clubs elected their representatives to the Executive Committee. Since then, the committee has grown to about 17 clubs, with a technical committee for each sport each with an annual plan for its work.

The first committee activity, a four-day carnival, was held on the anniversary of the start of the Syrian revolution on 18 March. Hundreds of sports players participated in a variety of sports. Bilel Ghabes, chairman of the committee, told Enab Baladi that they faced great difficulties at the beginning of their work.

Before the start of the revolution there were only five well- known clubs in al-Ghouta, most famous of which were Douma, Harasta and Maliha. According to Ghabes, with the growing number of clubs and sports teams in al-Ghouta, there was a need to organize them so they set certain conditions and procedures and established a committee to assess the clubs.

According to the survey carried out by Enab Baladi, the last festival held on 6 October 2016, which was sponsored by the committee, “was successful by all standards especially given the available resources.” Ghabes explained that the festival had taken three months of preparation and included 17 sports competitions, after cancellation of the shooting competition because the location where it was to be held was bombed. The festival ended on 3 November 2016 without a closing ceremony due to the escalation of attacks on al-Ghouta, which interrupted its activities for three days just after its launch.

The sports activities in the festival varied from basketball and soccer to table tennis and included individual sports such as judo, kickboxing, karate and taekwondo as well as marathons for several competitor categories, a motorbike race, swimming and horseback riding.

 

Al-Ghouta sports festival in Damascus, October 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Al-Ghouta sports festival in Damascus, October 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Participation in the festival was not limited only to the clubs affiliated to the Executive Committee but also included private clubs including the Somoud, Amal and al-Aan sports clubs along with other clubs from Barzeh, Qaboun and Jobar.

According to the festival statistics, the number of participants reached 1242 competitors. The competitions were distributed between the towns of Harasta, Arbin, Sakba, Ein Tarma, Hamouriya and Kafarbatna. The athletes who won first place received basic prizes and certificates of participation and appreciation.

Disabled people participated in swimming, table tennis, chess, weightlifting and the 10-meter race in their wheelchairs. Fifteen disabled sports players participated although there are a total of 25 – Ghabees blamed the small number on the “lack of sufficient wheelchairs for everyone.”

Douma’s and Misraba’s Clubs Outside Executive Committee

In spite of the increase in activities in al-Ghouta, the sports field still suffers from many disagreements. Some clubs refuse to work under the umbrella of the Executive Committee, most notably Douma and Misraba clubs and some other teams in the Marj region.

Bilel Ghabees, head of the Executive Committee of the General Commission for Sports, says that some of the disagreements started in protest at the election method, as a result of which an electoral commission was formed to supervise the elections. Ghabees pointed out that the Commission had contacted the clubs and requested their structure, after approval by the Provincial Council, but Douma club, which was present during the elections, had suggested postponing them twice in order to better organize its internal affairs and the other parties had refused to postpone for a third time.

Douma club had protested that they did not want to be represented by external people and the Commission had responded that it was run by local people and that it included sports players and champions from all provinces, according to Ghabees.

The club’s secretary, Farouq Hassoun, considers that the problem with the Commission “is the absence of standards in classifying clubs, training centers and sports teams, which is the basis of its work.”

According to Hassoun, the training centers have technical standards and are organized administratively. Some of these centers may be for-profit, some are part of the local council or are managed by an experienced player. Clubs, however, are official institutions as they own stadiums, facilities and financial investments. Hassoun called for “seeing the reality of sports in the right way and starting from a solid basis in order to establish internal rules that regulate the work of the sports institutions in al-Ghouta”.

Quanawati, the head of the General Commission for Youth and Sports, says that the Executive Committee was in contact with Douma club for a year and a half, “but in vain, the deadlines and decisions set were not followed”. He added, during his interview with Enab Baladi, that the club demands that funds should be provided through the Provincial Council and not the Executive Committee. “This is not possible because the Commission is national while the Provincial Council is local.”

Despite these differences, the club participated in the last festival in al-Ghouta by lending two players to Harasta club and providing technicians, players and referees in karate, according to a document obtained by Enab Baladi. The Executive Committee also expressed its appreciation to the independent cadres who participated from Douma independently from the club, who Ghabees described as “exceptional”.

Bodybuilding Clubs Full of Energy

After being closed for three years, bodybuilding clubs are back to life and full of athletes from eastern al-Ghouta, with new faces turning up each day.

The new clubs have seen a remarkable turnout, while others have benefited from their reputation before the revolution.

Athlete in a bodybuilding club in eastern al-Ghouta, August 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Athlete in a bodybuilding club in eastern al-Ghouta, August 2016 (Enab Baladi)

An-Noubala and Ghouta clubs in Douma are the ones most frequented by sports players. The prices paid by members vary according to the town and location of the club. It ranges between 1000 and 3000 Syrian Lira, although it was around 500 to 700 Lira before the revolution.

Most of al-Ghouta’s residents agree that the game has witnessed a remarkable revival, and that it is still a popular sports activity among different age groups, especially young men between 19 and 25 years old.

Douma Club, 60 Years’ Existence in al-Ghouta

Douma or “al-Reef” Club was established in 1957 and built the first football stadium in the town near the Government office (Saraya) – now the site of the shopping center – but it moved to the western side of the city in 1964.

After the opposition took hold of the city, a group of athletes and intellectuals reopened the club on 23 June 2016 after it had closed at the end of 2012 due to conflict and insecurity in the town. They elected seven members, including the president of the club, in elections supervised by the Control and Inspection Body of the Local Council of the city.

The club has sponsored competitions and tournaments in different sports, most notably the first Ramadan sports festival in al-Ghouta in June 2016. It also inaugurated the first schools tournament, sponsored by the Directorate of Education, in April 2016, in which 12 teams from the city’s schools participated.

Opening of the schools tournament sponsored by Douma Sports Club, April 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Opening of the schools tournament sponsored by Douma Sports Club, April 2016 (Enab Baladi)

The club’s president, Oghad Othman, sees that the “bad” security situation is hindering the possibility of setting clear plans for the future, describing the gathering of players and restarting their training as an “achievement” given the complete destruction of the club’s facilities – which used to be famous in all of al-Ghouta – after the bombing.

The club is currently holding its activities and trainings inside the largest stadium in al-Ghouta under a six-month investment contract as a trial period. It includes football activities for all age groups.

The club’s secretary, Farouq Hassoun, explains that the club includes a total of 350 child and junior players and 50 adult players who play karate, in addition to 45 Taekwondo players. The club trains 80 children, 25 beginners and 20 adults in handball. As for football, the club has 15 junior players, 45 adult players and 25 other players ranging between 12 and 15 years old.

The club does not have stable financial resources, as its secretary explains, but receives regular support from the Council of Rif Dimashq. He adds that they will sign a contract in the coming days that will give the club its own center. The club also wants to introduce basketball and football into schools, by equipping five schools with facilities for both games.

Sports Club Managed by the “Army of Islam” in Al-Ghouta

Eight months ago, the Army of Islam group founded a sports club called “The Army Club”, an unprecedented step in sporting activities.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, the club’s president, Captain Nasser al-Shami (also known as Abu Jamal al-Umawi) said that the club had started organizing individual and collective activities in March 2016, becoming specialized in football and handball in addition to karate and judo.

According to al-Shami, there are 20 administrative members in the club, five of whom oversee the football activities, along with administrative and technical managers working on training the players physically and mentally. Al-Shami explains that the lack of proper administrative supervision had led the club to limit its activities to al-Ghouta, whereas it had previously been active across Syria.

Three Age Groups Within the Club

The club contains three age groups (junior, cub and senior), all of whom are fighters, assistants and workers in the Army of Islam, other than the juniors who are coached by the club in coordination with the schools and Sharia institutes in al-Ghouta, and who do not have to be part of the Army of Islam.

None of the players are full-time and are part of the organization’s brigades, according to al-Shami, who explains that the Army of Islam sets certain days and times for training, in which 28 players participate from the senior football team and 18 players from the youth team. The organization is working to form a professional team.

Al-Shami also confirms that the club has more than 50 youth players from colleges and schools, and the Army of Islam’s officials are looking for technicians and administrators to train them. He adds that 12 players in handball, eight karate players and five judo players belong to the club.

The club suspends its activities during the battles in al-Ghouta “because the protection of players is our duty”, said the club’s president. He also mentions that training takes place in halls spread over ten sports facilities within al-Ghouta, which the club rents on a regular basis.

The club has participated in two football tournaments during the eight months since it was founded. However, it was not able to participate in the karate championships because some players were affiliated to other clubs and have not yet been released.

According to the club’s president, the Army of Islam’s sports institute has internal regulations and a disciplinary system to which all players and staff have to adhere. “The internal regulations were not created by the Army, they use FIFA’s terms, with minor adjustments.”

Players in the “Army club” in Rif Dimashq, November 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Players in the “Army club” in Rif Dimashq, November 2016 (Enab Baladi)

The club’s founders say that they are facing various difficulties such as bombing of sports facilities and having to train players and organize tournaments secretly, away from media attention. Despite all these difficulties, he sees that “the Army of Islam plays a great role.”

Factional In-Fighting Has a Negative Impact

Fighting between the factions of al-Ghouta since 28 April 2016 has had a negative impact on the Army club, leading it to suspend its activities for around 40 days.

Two players were injured during the fighting, while three players left the club and three others from the football team were arrested and later released, according to the club’s president. He believes that the club was much stronger when it first started since it brought together players from all towns “but the fighting has limited it to certain areas”.

The club’s staff are trying to establish a new sports facility, which will be a civic institution managed by sports players and managers from all sports, if the situation stabilizes and the siege is lifted.

Ayman Abdeljawad: The Child Who Competed Against Adults and Won First Place in Table Tennis

The young Ayman Abdeljawad did not know the basics of table tennis one year ago. He worked hard and trained with his father who is a professional player in the sport until he became the youngest champion to win first place, in al-Ghouta Sports Festival, which ended on 3 November 2016, playing against players much older than him..

The young boy travelled from place to place within his district, Hammouriyya, in eastern al-Ghouta, in the hope of improving his skills as a player. He told Enab Baladi that he had trained for a whole year and did not know how to play the sport before that. “I watched my father for a long time as he played table tennis. I liked the game and I decided to learn in order to become a great player like my dad,” Ayman Abdeljawad told Enab Baladi.

The child, aged 15, focused on following his father’s tips until he got the chance to achieve his goal in al-Ghouta Festival. He was the youngest player in the competition, which he says was an advantage, enabling him to move lightly. He said, “I was very fit”, which helped him to beat dozens of players much older than him, some as old as 30.

His father told Enab Baladi that out of 72 players who participated, Abdeljawad beat 35, realizing his dream of winning the competition on 27 October 2016.

He managed to reach his goal despite working with his father in his bookshop and studying in the ninth grade, as well as the difficult circumstances in al-Ghouta.

Ayman Abdeljawad during the table tennis tournament in al-Ghouta Festival, 27 October 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Ayman Abdeljawad during the table tennis tournament in al-Ghouta Festival, 27 October 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Abdeljawad’s father tells us that he made a small table tennis table in his bookshop for his son, where he practiced in his free time for more than a year, even though he had very little time due to his studies and home duties. But the young boy managed to win two certificates of appreciation and participation for winning the tournament and beating older players.

Abdeljawad has become a hero in the eyes of the people of easterm al-Ghouta. Bilal Ghabees, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the General Commission for Sports in al-Ghouta, which organized the festival, described him as an “exceptional player”.

The young boy seeks to develop his abilities in order to participate in future competitions and add new titles to his humble sporting achievements.

Sports in Hauran… An Activity Managed by Experienced Staff

Deraa province has a very active sports scene in its liberated areas, including both individual and team sports. It holds several regular events such as football, handball and volleyball leagues as well as a number of individual competitions such as chess tournaments.

Twenty six clubs participate in these competitions, which are divided into two groups, east and west, each composed of 13 clubs, in addition to some small clubs that withdrew from the leagues due to lack of financial resources.

Enab Baladi spoke to Mahmoud al-Hariri, Vice President of the Executive Committee for Sports and Youth in Deraa, who explained that the suffers from a lack of necessary resources – all 20 stadiums that host the football league games have dirt floors and the only two suitable stadiums are under the control of the regime. Mahmoud also mentioned that there is a lack of gyms in the liberated areas.

Sports players in Deraa receive a lot of support from experienced players and experts. The General Commission for Sports in Deraa estimates that 60-70% of sportsmanagers in the liberated areas are former players.

The largest number of sports players is in football – between 400 and 450 players in several clubs. There are also 40 qualified referees who supervise football league matches but they face several problems such as the unstable security conditions, the lack of resources and the lack of support and sponsorship, as well as the lack of coaching and arbitration trainings, which is the biggest problem they face.

The Executive Committee for Sports and Youth in Deraa managed to launch a football league ranking, in cooperation with the General Commission for Youth and Sports and the Syrian Football Federation . This competition is the largest and most active in the province, and has contributed to reviving the spirit of the game in the province.

Despite the difficulties, the Executive Committee for Sports in Deraa hopes to revive all sports activities in collaboration with all the active clubs and its own subcommittees, despite recognizing the difficulty of the task that faces them.

Sawara Club: A New Experience Competing with Bigger Clubs

Sawara Club started in early 2016 with three sports teams in football, basketball and volleyball and one individual sport, chess. The club started a team for juniors and another for children and organizes various recreational competitions and training sessions for children in order to discover new young talented players.

The club brings together 150 players in various sports, who are supervised by former players and coaches. The club participated in the Deraa league and came fifth in the tournament, which recently ended. The club’s ranking was affected by the withdrawal of five clubs in the second league out of 14, which resulted in the reduction of 17 points for the club, negatively impacting its position in the league rankings.

The club’s journey has been full of obstacles such as difficulties in securing transportation, clothing and sports equipment, and the club has to pay for transportation out of its own resources. The club’s staff believe that their results in competitions are excellent given the difficulties and obstacles that the club faces.

The club is hoping to launch a handball team and to add new sports such as karate, martial arts and wrestling to its activities. The club’s officials also hope that Sawara’s local residents  and organizationswill provide support and encouragement to the club and contribute to developing sports in the district.

“Al-Shaala 18 March” Club: Memories of Hauranian Sport

Enab Baladi visited the “al-Shaala 18 March” club headquarters in the city of Deraa and attended some of its training sessions, held in training grounds that were largelt unequipped for training. We met the club’s president, Mohamed Mahameed, who is considered one of the best-known football players in the province of Deraa and trained in al-Shaala club from the children’s through to the adult division.

He spoke to Enab Baladi about his experiences in the club, “We played well and we achieved good results. We went from the third division to the first division and are playing against the best teams in Syria.”

Regarding the situation in the city, he said, “In the beginning, we were under siege by the regime and were watching football games on TV, feeling sad not to participate because sport runs in our blood. Now, we are back to our sports activities after the region was liberated.”

“The club was created through the efforts of young and experienced sports players. We play all kinds of collective and individual sports and we have participated in the Deraa league. We are looking forward to making greater progress next season.”

Mahameed believes that the club has achieved great results despite all the difficulties it faces such as the lack of support and equipment. “The regime controls all the sports facilities and that’s why we hold our activities in school halls. We hope that we will get the necessary support in order for sport to flourish in the province.”

Al-Shaala football team, November 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Al-Shaala football team, November 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Referees in Deraa… No Support or Salaries

Referees are considered one of the most important elements of sports but they face many difficulties in Deraa such as the lack of status and support, in addition to all the problems sports are facing in general.

Ibrahim al-Hariri, one of the Deraa football league’s referees, told Enab Baladi that there is a lack of support for the referee system, “We referees are facing a lack of support from the sports authorities, we get neither support nor salaries.”

“We bear the expenses of refereeing such as transportation between stadiums, which is paid entirely by the referee himself”, he added.

Referees get a symbolic remuneration for each game, but this happens only rarely. “We are supposed to get a fee of 1950 Syrian Lira for every game but we have not received any remuneration since the fifth round of the tournament”, al-Hariri said.

The biggest problem for referees is the absence of compensation in case of injury. Al-Hariri explained, “We work on the sports field and we can be injured at any time. Any referee who is injured will not receive any compensation.”

The Executive Committee of the General Commission for Youth and Sports in Deraa includes a special committee for referees, which contains 40 referees who have undergone two training courses in refereeing. The role of this committee is to assign referees to the various matches and supervise their training.

The referees hope that the committee’s role will expand to include providing special support to referees, which is the role currently played by the Executive Committee. They also hope that the sports committees will secure the physical and health needs of referees in order to help improve their performance.

The First Victim of the Revolution was an Athlete… Dozens of Players Killed by Al-Assad in Deraa

 

 The role of sports players and their participation in the revolution habe been closely followed by their fans. Syria’s sports players have been present in all of the important events related to the revolution.

The province of Deraa witnessed the first killing of a Syrian sports player by the al-Assad regime, Mahmoud Jawabra, who was one of the first victims in the Syrian revolution. However, many people do not know that Jawabra, who was a player for al-Shaala football club, was the first person killed by Syrian security forces in Deraa.

Al-Shaala club, the most well-known club in Deraa, has lost many players who were killed by the Syrian regime. They represented a range of sports – more than 20 footballers such as Omar al-Najjar and Fadi Bajabuj, handball players such as Moussa al-Jahmani and Khaled Salti, basketball player Alewi al-Ktifan, and volleyball player Anwar al-Mousalama, one of the leaders of the Free Syrian Army.

In individual sports, the victims including Yaman Jawabra, a kickboxing player who was killed after he defected from al-Assad’s forces and fought against it in Idlib. The shotput champion, Fayyad Obazeid, was killed by the regime in a peaceful demonstration in the city of Deraa.

Al-Assad’s forces also killed Anwar al-Dgim, one of the most renowned wrestlers in Deraa, as well as the Syrian and Arab champion in bodybuilding, Nawres al-Thini.

Rizk al-Kotayfan, who died in mid-September 2016, was one of the most prominent people in the sports field in Deraa. He worked with dozens of his colleagues to revive sports in the liberated areas after sports activities had been suspended for over three years. Al-Kotayfan was among the founders of al-Shaala club and was one of its players. He held a degree in electrical engineering and was a founding member of the Free Volleyball Federation. He was also the secretary general and a former player in the al-Wehda team, as well as as referee in the third division.

Al-Kotayfan joined the Ansar al-Huda armed faction in the city of Deraa and participated in the battle of “Qadisiyyat al-Janoub” launched by opposition factions in the countryside of northern Quneitra, in which he manned the battalion’s 14.5 mm machine gun. He ended up being directly targeted by al-Assad’s forces in the countryside of Quneitra and was killed along with three other fighters.

The long list of sports players who have died in Deraa continues to grow longer day-by-day. According to Deraa’s Documentation Office for Martyrs, over 70 al-Shaala club players have died in the revolution.

Escalation of Strikes in Aleppo Paralyzes Sports

Aleppo was viewed as Syria’s leading city when it came to sports. That was before its eastern district became involved in the revolution against the al-Assad regime. The city has been under the control of opposition factions for four years and has recently been brought to a standstill by an escalation of air and ground strikes along with the siege imposed on the city.

Since November, the city of Aleppo has witnessed the most intensive strikes ever, causing the death of more than 400 people in the eastern district and the destruction of entire neighborhoods. As a result, sports activities have become limited to two gyms that carry on their activities with difficulty under the circumstances.

Sports in the City of Aleppo Lose 90% of Activity

Enab Baladi met with Samer Zeidan, director of the Executive Committee of the General Commission for Youth and Sports in Aleppo. He explained that the members of the Executive Committee were appointed in September 2015 and an administrative structure put in place. He said, “We communicated with the sports players and gathered the largest number possible and allocated them to the different technical committees to assess their abilities. We also started a new project to establish gyms in order to revive sports in Aleppo”.

Zeidan pointed out some activities that had been suspended because of the military escalation and siege including the “Syria’s Child Athletes” project, which has seen 70-80% of its activities suspended. Some football matches were also cancelled and others transferred to sports halls to keep players safe. However, even these matches were completely suspended after residential neighborhoods began to be targeted with missiles.

The bombardment also hit a taekwondo gym and other sports gyms, killing many sports players. As a result, around 90% of sports activities have stopped.

Concerning the material and human damage caused by the military campaign, Zeidan told Enab Baladi that the Committee had lost its head office and all its offices, in addition to five gyms and a significant amount of equipment. The most painful loss has been the numerous casualties among trainers and sports players as well as several injuries.

Zeidan has not lost all hope. Despite the siege, some activities are still underway including the taekwondo gym managed by coach Mahmoud Baradii, as well as the Wushu Kung Fu gym, which is still operating under coach Mohamed Masto, and the boxing gym will be reopened soon to resume its activities.

Athletes Facing Death

Enab Baladi went to the only taekwondo gym in the eastern Aleppo and attended a training session for a number of children aged between eight and twelve years old organized as part of the “Syria’s Child Athletes” project. Enab Baladi met the supervisor of the gym, Captain Mahmoud al-Baradii, who said that the project had started about five months ago and includes eight major sports.

Al-Baradii added that the project has attracted many children since it started, which is why the organizers have decided to hold the activities in other clubs using more than one coach to supervise them.

But all that changed after the recent escalation in Aleppo, as he explained, “In the current situation, parents have become more fearful for their children’s lives, especially after the use of new types of missiles. We were forced to stop all our activities. The Executive Committee issued a decision to restart the training in underground halls that it had prepared but the new missiles are able to reach even those places, which has made the situation even worse for all of us”.

The economic siege imposed on eastern Aleppo has impacted negatively on the sports sector as any activity requires the availability of appropriate nutrition for players.  Captain al-Baradii explained, “We cannot do enough exercises with the players because that will require them to consume more, that’s why many sports players have been forced to reduce their training.”

Al-Baradii remembers with great sadness the children he had trained who were killed in the last bombing, “One child said to me, ‘How can we play when our friend was killed?’ And another asked, ‘Whose turn will it be next?’ The situation is very bad but we are doing our best to carry on.”

Homs: Sports Carnivals Under Siege

During the last two decades preceding the revolution against the Syrian regime, sports were absent from the city of Homs, one of the most important cities in Syria and the hometown of the two historic Syrian football clubs, al-Wathaba and al-Karamah. Because life must go on despite the war and the siege, al-Waer neighborhood, the last liberated neighborhood in the area, has organized sports events, among the most prominent in the liberated areas in Syria.

During preparation of this investigative report, al-Waer neighborhood witnessed a violent military escalation by al-Assad’s forces both by air and on the ground using all sorts of missiles, including cluster bombs, causing large numbers of civilian casualties, including women and children. These bombings have had an immediate impact on all aspects of daily life in Homs including making it more difficult to hold sports events in the neighborhood.

Enab Baladi’s team managed to film in a number of gyms and attended training sessions for the neighborhood’s children in various sports. We met Abdulaziz Dalati, the director of the Executive Committee of the General Commission in Homs. Dalati formerly worked as a first division football referee and was detained and tortured at the start of the revolution due to his support for the uprising. He announced his defection from the General Sports Federation and joined the Free Sports Federation.

Children train in Homs sports center in al-Waer neighborhood, November 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Children train in Homs sports center in al-Waer neighborhood, November 2016 (Enab Baladi)

Dalati explains that various training centers were opened for all types of sports, in collaboration with the most experienced sports players, in order to prepare a new successful generation of athletes, in spite of the bombings and siege. The province now has sports activities for football, judo, kickboxing, boxing, volleyball, karate and table tennis. The Committee is now studying a proposed project to open a center for chess.

The successful results of “free Homs” were seen in the first and second editions of the Homs Sports Festival in May 2015 and May 2016, which Dalati described as a “mini Olympics” in al-Waer. He said, “The first sports festival was attended by around 1250 sports players of different ages representing 11 different sports. It was the first project of its kind in the liberated areas in Syria”.

After the second festival, which was held a few months ago in al-Waer and sponsored by the General Commission, a similar festival was held in eastern al-Ghouta and Rif Dimashq.

Al-Waer neighborhood is now experiencing a large military campaign that has disrupted all aspects of daily life and forced people to take refuge in bomb shelters. All sports activities have been suspended but as soon as the bombing stops, the players and coaches will return to sports centers because sports are the only respite for them, as Dallati says.

Sports in Al-Jazeera: Outside the Sports Federation

Like in other Syrian areas that are not under regime control, a sports body was established in the province of al-Hasakah and became affiliated to the “Autonomous Administration” declared by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. Since last year, it has been organizing activities independently from the General Sports Federation in Damascus.

An Athletic Federation with Seven Committees

Enab Baladi visited the head office of the Sports Federation in the province of al-Jazeera under the authority of the “Autonomous Administration” and spoke to Jamila Sheikh Othman, the co-president of the Federation, about the reality of sports in cities and towns in the province. Othman explained that the Sports Federation was established in September 2015 and supervises the activities of nine cities in the province of Al-Jazeera, each of which has its own sports council. The Sports Federation is working on developing and reviving sports and organizing activities, tournaments and festivals across the province.

The Sports Federation is composed of seven main committees including football, individual games, group sports, female sports, the school committee and the media committee.

The committee for individual games is responsible for athletics in general. It also organizes championships, while the committee for female sports manages all the sports that women play such as volleyball, handball and basketball. The championships take place in 12 facilities that are licensed by the Sports Federation, which gave a license to 14 clubs in Al-Jazeera province, most notably Qamishlou, Kobani, Berkhoudan, al-Horriyya, al-Khabour, Meetan, al-Jazeera, Hafal and others.

Othman pointed to the many challenges faced by the Federation in Hasakah, as most of the facilities belong to the regime’s federation. This makes it difficult to use them because of the nature of the relationship between the two sides.

The co-president added that the Sports Federation has helped to establish a committee to organize a festival for people with disabilities, currently being prepared.

The committee works in cooperation with the Work and Social Affairs Committee, the Health Committee, the Arts and Culture Committee and the local channel, “Ronahi”.

International Referee Quits in Protest Over “Injustices” by Regime Federation

Enab Baladi met with the international referee Radwan Othman, born in Qamishli in 1973 and a father of three. He started refereeing in 2000, becoming the only international referee in his city in 2010.

Othman has refereed in many international football matches, including in the Islamic Solidarity Championships in Indonesia in 2013 (where he was chosen as the best referee of the tournament), the Western Asia Championships in Qatar last year, the Jordanian football league, and qualifying rounds for the Iraqi, Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti championships, as well as the Syrian football league.

This year, Othman decided to quit refereeing, at the height of his career, in protest at the “oppression and injustice” committed against him by the regime for the last two years, including preventing him from participating in the Asian championships. The position was given instead to referees loyal to the regime, according to him.

Although he has officially quit, he is still passionate about refereeing and is currently officiating a number of games in Al-Jazeera. He also oversees referees in the local football league, along with his brother Marwan Othman.  He is also due to supervise training courses for referees in the next few months, and will assess and classify them based on their experience and preference.

The international referee also criticized the situation of sports in Al-Jazeera, which he thinks moving very slowly because of “not putting the right people in the right places”. He added, “Some people are working but they are not suitable for sports in Qamishli, which has its own uniqueness and is advanced compared to other regions. The level of sports players exceeds that of the officials.”

Othman has a positive attitude regarding the reality of sports in al-Hasakah, “Before (the crisis), al-Jihad club used to do everything since it was the sole representative of the city of Qamishli”. Today, however, there are 12 clubs competing in the provincial league along with al-Jihad, which is still playing in the Syrian league.

Othman insists that success depends on having the necessary stadiums, facilities, financial resources and sports competencies, “All of this is not possible without financially support for sports, which is not possible right now”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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