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The Iraqi town fighting the Islamic State with football

The militant group banned playing football in the town, and destroyed the stadium when they left. But love for the game never died
Young football players and fans in Iraqi border town of Rabia (MEE /Sebastian Castelier)

When Islamic State rolled into the Iraqi town of Rabia in 2014, they banned football and started punishing anyone who wanted to play. Equipment was confiscated, stones were thrown at players and anyone caught contravening the rules was warned and even threatened with death. 

For the small, relatively isolated community straddling the Syria-Iraq border, the death of the sport proved devastating.

“Sport means life and when Daesh [IS] said we couldn't play anymore, we became very angry and sad,” Rabia’s main football coach Abu Ahmed told Middle East Eye. “Some people cried.”

Faced with a host of restrictions and the threat of harsh reprisals for not obeying the militant group's dogmatic interpretation of Islam, many residents fled to neighbouring villages.

Those that did kept doing the best thing they knew to escape their harsh situation - play football. It turned out to be an act of resistance.

“I was making small teams, to allow kids to play,” said Wahan Abu Ahmed, the director of Rabia’s sport club.

“Even if Daesh wasn’t permanently there, we had to be careful.”  

Aitash, a football trainer in the town, says that for ages playing the game was all that he could think about.

“We tried to be free. We just wanted to play,” he said.

But even playing on this small scale proved dangerous.  

Aitash says that several times, some residents would oppose the matches and would insult the children playing, confiscate balls, throw stones at the players and spread fear.

“Some inhabitants were scared [of IS] or close to Daesh and they were saying we were crazy to play,” said Aitash. “In our village, Daesh came several times. Twice they caught us playing football and warned us that the next time they would kill us all.”

The threats were not idle. IS has carried out notorious massacres against football fans, most recently in May when IS gunmen stormed a Real Madrid supporters club in Balad, north of Baghdad, killing at least 16 people. In March, a suicide bomber attacked a stadium in the city of Iskanderiyah during a football match, killing 29.

When Iraqi Peshmerga finally drove IS out of Rabia, and the stadium was repaired, locals celebrated by organising a football match. Young and old alike abandoned their jobs and families to come to the game and watch two teams gather around and kick about the slightly deflated ball.

“I kneeled on the ground, took a handful of soil and cried,” said Abu Ahmed, who was once a semi-professional player and told MEE that to him seeing sports and football matches once again being played on Rabia’s streets felt like at least a small victory over IS ideology.

These days, games happen relatively frequently and excited children on the football field say they are trying to forget IS.

“I don’t think any more about it, even when I am dreaming,” a 14-year-old boy told MEE.

Young football players in Rabia (MEE /Sebastian Castelier)

Islamic State vs football

Football lovers in Rabia are still miffed as to why IS launched such a fierce attack on their beloved sport. Many bemoan not being consulted when the ban was introduced and point to the fact that IS seems to operate by a different set of rules depending on where it is.

“There was no discussion possible with them so we could not explain why football is not a sin,” said Aitash.

Abu Ahmed also stressed that football teaches discipline and respect.

“Players learn humility, respect and to work as a team, football is a school of life,” he added.

According to a member of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, a citizen media group reporting from IS’s self-proclaimed capital, IS has different rules in different places.

“The question of football isn't written down anywhere by Daesh. There is no written law telling people that football is banned,” the activist told Vice news.

Instead, the citizen journalist says the issue of football is raised orally in the streets, the mosques or at one of the city’s media points.

The Wahhabi doctrine, to which Daesh often adheres, subscribes to the Islamic code of modesty which states that men should not have their thighs uncovered, but whether or not that ruling on modest clothing should lead to banning playing or even watching football has been the object of fierce debate and several fatwas.

Some clerics say that as long as playing does not prevent people from observing their religious duties, there is no reason why football should be banned. Others argue that because a match involves two opposing teams, it creates a division within the believers’ community, known as an ummah, and must therefore be considered a sin.

The division means that watching football is sometimes authorised in some cities, but that the rule can abruptly change depending on the militants' mood.

Children watch a football match in Rabia (MEE /Sebastian Castelier)

Playing is resisting

When IS pulled out of Rabia, they made their opposition to football clear, blowing up the stadium and the club, a vital source of entertainment for the town’s residents.

Almost two years after the militant’s withdrew, the city lies in ruins. The mosque and several key buildings still wear the stigmata of the fighting, and are pocked with bullet holes.

The hospital, which was Rabia’s biggest building at the entrance of the city and was used to hide IS weapons and later as a base to try and defend the town, is now nothing but rubble. Residents are forced to drive three hours to get to the nearest hospital in Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

But it is the senseless decision to strip the city of its sporting facilities as they retreated that has angered some residents the most. They took everything from furniture, to jerseys and even light bulbs.

“They blew it up only because they don’t like sport,” a spectator at an evening match told MEE.

Abu Ahmed said that before the invasion, the club was about to install synthetic grass on one of the football fields.

“Daesh stole it. We don’t know what they will do with it, but they stole absolutely everything,” he said.

A football fan who did not want to give his name joked that the militants had likely “smoked” the grass.

Starting again

Abu Ahmed has been trying to replace what was lost little by little, but he says he faces an uphill battle.

“I try to help everyone, especially the kids. They want to play but they don't have clothes, so I try to buy them some when I have money,” said Abu Ahmed.

Children play amidst the rubble in Rabia (MEE /Sebastian Castelier)

He says he hopes to organise a regional championship soon and that it would be a “great thing for children,” but with the impoverished town desperately trying to rebuild and IS still 70 kilometres away, the challenges are daunting.

“When we got freedom, we were happy and we forgot some of the things we saw. But we can’t forget bad people,” he says.

While some teachers and parents insist the children are starting to return to normal in part thanks to football. Abu Ahmed says he is painfully aware that the scars will be slow to fade.

“I can’t say that kids have forgotten, but at least they are happy to play.”