He was once held underneath Raqa’s stadium, a prisoner in the Islamic State group’s Syrian capital. Now Aziz al-Sajer has returned to the pitch — only this time, with a football.
The 25-year-old and his fellow players on the Al-Rashid football team gathered this week in the stadium for a play-off tournament between local clubs.
Dressed in white and bright yellow shirts, they stretched and did warm-up exercises before sprinting onto the sun-parched dirt field.
A few dozen fans cheered them on from metal stands still pockmarked by last year’s offensive to oust IS from Raqa.
Directly beneath the supporters were the rooms the jihadists once transformed into a notorious prison.
Before joining his teammates, Sajer looked around at the one-time jail where he spent a month being interrogated by IS after defecting from Syria’s army.
“This prison behind me is now in the past. It’s all over, and now we can rest,” he said.
He had dark memories of IS’s three-year reign over Raqa, where it ruthlessly enforced its ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law.
“We used to sneak around just to play sports. It wasn’t officially banned — they just hated it,” Sajer told AFP.
“They banned sports logos on clothes, like Real Madrid or Barcelona. You could get imprisoned for that,” Sajer recalled.
Ironically, that could land people beneath the Raqa stadium, which IS had outfitted as a jail.
Bullet casings are still scattered near the pitch, and the dirty walls of the dimly-lit rooms underground are marked by handwritten messages from former prisoners: “Oh God, help us.”
– ‘Nice one!’ –
Last year, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces waged a fierce battle to oust IS from Raqa, and the stadium was one of the jihadists’ final holdouts.
Six months later, the pitch is full of life as teams from different SDF-held areas duke it out on the field.
The tournament was organised by the Raqa Civil Council, an SDF-affiliate local committee tasked with running the city’s affairs.
Nashwa Ramadan, co-chair of the RCC’s sports and youth committee, said the football championship was the first since IS rule ended.
“We’ve made the stadium a place for sports again,” she told AFP.
“Daesh is gone, and with it, the fear. We even have plans for women’s sports,” Ramadan said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
The match back at the stadium saw Al-Rashid take on Al-Sad, a team from the nearby town of Tabqa that was also recaptured from IS by the SDF.
As the players chased the ball around the pitch the watching fans bellowed their appreciation.
“Al-Sad, Al-Sad, where’s the fourth goal?” called out one Tabqa supporter, while another spectator cheered, “Nice one, nice one!”
Among those cheering was Mohammad al-Haruni, who told AFP he was glad to see life back to normal.
“The hisba (religious police) would tell us, ‘jihad is the best exercise,'” Haruni recalled.
“After the destruction and displacement, we have hope that things will be better in the future,” he said.
“This match is proof of that.”