When shelling worked as the final whistle: Three love stories

Around the world, thousands of children are directly affected by different armed conflicts. They don’t go to school, learn how to take cover from shelling, spend months lying on hospital beds but they don’t stop playing football. With three stories, Arghya Lahiri explains the beautiful bond between children and football, their sacrifice, and questions our indifference.

And it’s true we are immune

When fact is fiction and TV reality

And today the millions cry

          We eat and drink while tomorrow they die……

Sunday Bloody Sunday, U2

Grown-ups can destroy everything, can’t stop us from playing football [ Image Source (from left) – babby-imtemito.deviantart.com, unhcr.org, Unknown]

Few months ago, the dead body of the Syrian refugee child Aylan Kurdi, lying on a sea beach in Turkey, created a huge uproar worldwide. Social networking sites were flooded with emotional and angry statements. Do we remember him anymore? In every armed conflict all over the world, children have always suffered the most. Such conflicts take away their innocence, shatter their dreams, make them orphans, force them away from schools, keep them hungry and often kill them. How much trouble did we face when we were kids and enjoyed playing football? Generally we, the grown-ups, enjoy football staying in the comfort zone of our home or local pubs. We visit stadiums to watch football. When we do so, do we take cover from incoming artilleries? We don’t put our life in any risk while we enjoy football. How much does football really matter in our life? It affects our mood, that’s fine, but for how long? A defeat in a weekend may be overshadowed by a win against our rival club in the next weekend. Do we face the question of life and death when we play football? Do we play chess with death when we ‘enjoy’ football? I will share with you a few incidents. One may call these incidents ‘stories’, they are tragic love stories and protagonists are mainly children playing football with friends or brothers or perhaps they were playing chess with death, unknowingly. Every love story doesn’t need a Romeo and a Juliet.

Bosnia, 1993

It was the second year of the armed conflict between Bosniaks and Serbs. On 12th April, 1993, Bosnian Serbs told United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that they would attack Bosnian town Srebrenica if Bosniaks don’t surrender. There was a school in Srebrenica which was full of Bosniak refugees. On 12th April, football matches were held in the football field adjacent to that school as there was not much shelling in the recent past. They were not aware of the latest political situation. Lots of children were there to play and enjoy. They were playing a match and suddenly a rocket was fired from a hill. After the first rocket was fired, people started running around, bodies of children were lying in pools of blood. Horrified mothers were taking their children and running to a safer place. Then six more rockets were fired and bodies of children and their mothers were left strewn around. There was a body of a headless mother holding her headless children. On that day, around 60-70 children were killed and more than a 100 injured. Just a second before the shelling started, they were enjoying football.

from left.  1. Sead bekric is brought to hospital after shelling 2. Memorial to commemorate the Srebrenica massacre [Image Source (from left) – bosnjaci.net, FloUKkingdom]

One of the survivors of Srebrenica child massacre Sead Bekric who was then fourteen years old testified before the court of International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. He lost his eyes in that incident. His father was killed during the war and sister was gang-raped. Eighteen years after the incident, he said in an interview to the Associated Press “Years have passed by. We have lost our loved ones and they will never return to us…I was fourteen years old, but mentally, I was a 20-year-old.I had learned to run from gunfire, I learned to survive. And when I came here (USA), all those things were in me

Chechnya, 1999

As the second Russia-Chechnya war was at its peak in late 1999, Russians were shelling and attacking different parts of Chechnya mercilessly. Thousands of refugees, majority of whom were women and children, were fleeing to Ingushetia. They carried the news of an incident which happened a few days back and thus it came to be known to the rest of the world. Novy Sharoy is a village which is just 10km away from Chechnya-Ingushetia border. On 24th October morning, 21 village boys, aged between nine to eighteen, were playing football. Suddenly a Russian tank fired a shell targeting them. The village was already cleared of rebels. So there was no apparent reason for firing. That explosion hit every boy playing there. Seven of them were killed instantly. Others were injured heavily. Later, few of them lost their hands or legs permanently. And all this happened because they were playing football in a sensitive area in the time of an armed conflict.

Chechen children playing football in refugee camp [Image Source – unhcr.org]

Just few days after the incidents, 13-year-old Yusuf Magomedov, lying in the hospital with his two injured legs, stated with pain “All I remember is one minute we were running around, playing with a ball. The next I lost consciousness. Then I woke up. I looked to the front and  behind me. Everyone was lying around. There was blood everywhere. I was crying and crying. Seven of my friends died. It was a picture of horror.

Palestine, 2014

Tension between Israel and Palestine is ever-present. But sometime it increases and in those times death toll rises like hell. July 2014 was such a time. 17th July was a sunny day. In the afternoon, seven cousins of Bakr family of fishermen, aged between nine to eleven, decided to play football on the beach of the Gaza City port area. Elders of the family asked them not to go there as the situation was very tense. However their enthusiasm to play football was so high that they just ran towards the beach ignoring their elders. While they were playing, a projectile was fired from an Israeli navy vessel and it exploded near a makeshift house, a little away from those children. They were unhurt but terrified and started running for shelter. Those children were running towards Al-Deira hotel where international journalists were staying to cover that conflict. When they were not far away from hotel, another shell exploded and it was so close to them that the journalists who were observing and screaming from the hotel understood that the target could be those children. One died at the spot. Six others were injured and taken to hospital. In the hospital, three more children died.

1. Running to dodge, not a player but incoming shells 2. You know what it means 3. Dead or alive? [Image Source (from left) – 24 Media Production, OccupiedPalestine.wordpress.com, The Huffington Post]

And again, innocent children paid the price for their love and passion for football when masters of war had different passions. Al-Deira hotel’s waiter Mohammad Fares told journalists “We often see boys playing on the beach, this is quite common. Suddenly there was an explosion and I could see a group of them fall…”. 11-year-old Mohammad Bakr was one of the four children who died there. His mother cried in agony “Why did he go to the beach and play- for them to take him away from me?” Really, why did they?

I have finished the stories. Perhaps you are sad now because you love children, you love football and you don’t like bloodshed. I think I am trying to find glory out of all this, unfortunately. These children were not playing football for a big match or a trophy. I am wrong. Every match was so big for them that they could not care about anything else. In Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Palestine, it was those little angels that made the game more beautiful with their lives. They were not just casualties. They were martyrs, innocent football martyrs. Every day in the world, hundreds of children play football in the streets, parks, small grounds, parking lots, backyards, in areas where shelling, gun shots, drone attacks, car bomb explosions, sniper fire are part of everyday life. They play wearing jerseys, often the cheaper ones, of their favourite footballers or teams and die wearing that. FIFA doesn’t remember them. Corporates can’t sell them. We don’t care about them. And yet they are the most sacred and innocent part of this beautiful game.

Before forgetting us, give us a god damn football and we will keep playing [ Image Source (from left) – jfjfp.com , voanews.com, The Guardian, unhcr.org ]


Feature Photo: Richard Wainwright / Act for Peace