By Mahmoud a-Shimali and Justin Clark
IDLIB: Teams from ten cities in northern Syria’s opposition-held countryside are participating in a volleyball championship in the city of Idlib, the first of its kind since the beginning of the war in 2011.
“The love of sport pushed volleyball players to launch the championship,” says Maher Alwan, the president of the Free Syrian Volleyball Union. The games receive zero financial aid from any local or international organization, and players “pay out of their pockets” to play, says Alwan.
The championship was organized by the General Commission for Sports and Youth in Idlib province and began on February 10—but not without issue. The second match of the tournament was set to take place in Khan Sheyoukh, but was postponed nearly two weeks over security concerns.
Idlib province is controlled by various rebel factions and frequently targeted by regime and coalition airstrikes. Since late January infighting between factions has heightened tensions between rebel groups, with clashes between rival groups leading to the deaths of dozens of fighters and civilians.
Regime and Russian warplanes have bombed sports halls and athletic clubs frequently over the course of the past year, with Idlib’s Freedom Sports Club—the city’s largest and most well-known sports club—being struck by airstrikes twice last August, Syria Direct reported.
Fear of bombardment has also pushed athletes to play in covered areas out of sight from overhead aircraft, and to host games at improvised venues away from sports clubs, players and organizers tell the Syrian Voice.
Hiding from aircraft
Last week, several matches were held in Kufr Nubl, where the local volleyball team plays in a building once used as a technical school. The school had long been abandoned, and the team received permission from the owners to turn the building into an athletic center, says Abu Al-Waleed, the head of the newly-converted center.
“We needed a place that was covered,” he tells the Syrian Voice. “Now, when the team plays in front of audiences, everyone is hidden from aircraft.”
Sporting activities in Idlib are organized by the General Commission for Sports and Youth, which was founded by the opposition government in 2015 and contains 11 sports unions for football, volleyball, handball, tennis, chess, and other sports.
The football union was the first to join the commission, and organized its first championship—named the “Land of the Martyrs”—in 2015. The central Idlib town of Saraqeb won the title, competing in a field of 16 football clubs. To date, 54 sports clubs from rebel-held territories have registered with the committee.
Determined athletes are what keep sports alive in Idlib, says Muhammad al-Halaq, the head of the General Commission for Sports and Youth’s legal office. Bombings often delay matches, and numerous sports clubs have been damaged or destroyed by airstrikes.
“Life goes on”
Al-Halaq believes that the commission’s efforts have been successful, from the recent volleyball championship to the creation of a multi-tiered football league of 40 separate teams in Idlib province.
Yahya al-Uthman, captain of the “Hawks”—one of Idlib’s ten volleyball teams—believes that sports are crucial to preserving the talents of young people, and can give them a chance to escape from the war and entertain themselves.
“Some might say that playing sports during wartime isn’t proper, but our passion for sports keeps us going,” says al-Uthman.
“We believe that life goes on.”