Syria — Crooning goalkeeper leads Homs protests

Abdel­bas­set Saroot’s promis­ing future as a goal­keep­er dims as Syr­i­an forces encroach ever more on oppo­si­tion strong­holds in the bat­tered city of Homs.
A 20-year old play­er for Syria’s nation­al Under-23 team, soc­cer is for now the last thing on Mr. Saroot’s mind. A singer of rev­o­lu­tion­ary folk songs and a leader of the 11-month old pop­u­lar revolt in Homs Mr. Saroot leads the life of a marked man on the run.

He often leads protests croon­ing but after hav­ing sur­vived the bomb­ing of his house, three attempts on his life and suf­fer­ing the loss of his broth­er and some of his clos­est friends whose bod­ies were dumped on the streets of Homs and crushed by tanks, accord­ing to Al Jazeera, Mr. Saroot leads the life of a fugi­tive. Twelve peo­ple, includ­ing his broth­er were killed in the attack on his home. At the time, he held up for tele­vi­sion cam­eras emp­ty shells, which he described as the “Iran­ian heavy weapons” with which the pro­test­ers had been attacked.

He shies day light, trav­el­ling only at night. Con­stant­ly on the run, he nev­er stops mov­ing and stays at any one place at most a few days.

“It’s worth it. I’m free. I’ve trav­elled all over the world to play foot­ball. But free­dom is not just about me or about trav­el­ing. What about every­one else? Free­dom is a big word. It’s about free­dom of speech and free­dom of opin­ion. If you see some­thing wrong being done, free­dom is being able to talk about it,” Mr. Saroot, dressed in a black Sal­sa music t-shirt, told Al Jazeera.

Alert­ed to Mr. Saroot’s courage and cir­cum­stances, orig­i­nal­ly report­ed on The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer blog on August 4 and Novem­ber 13, senior Asian soc­cer offi­cials said they would look at ways to sup­port him. “It’s in our purview to defend play­ers,” one offi­cial said. It was not imme­di­ate­ly clear what soc­cer bod­ies can do beyond con­demn­ing the vio­lence and threats Mr. Saroot and much of the pop­u­la­tion are endur­ing.

“There is some­thing I want to tell every­one. I lost one of my broth­ers but this is some­thing I shouldn’t be say­ing because we’ve lost 13,000 peo­ple and a lot of peo­ple have been detained or have dis­ap­peared. … They are all like my broth­ers … It’s a big hon­our for ever­body to say: ‘We have a mar­tyr in this fam­i­ly,’ ” Mr. Saroot said, describ­ing the regime of embat­tled Pres­i­dent Bashar al Assad as “mon­strous.”

A hero in the eyes of Mr. Assad’s oppo­nents and an Islamist trai­tor accord­ing to the president’s regime, Mr. Saroot described his role as “a big respon­si­bil­i­ty to lift people’s morale. We always try to stay opti­mistic about the future. The more opti­mistic we are the more the rev­o­lu­tion keeps going,” Mr. Saroot said.

In an ear­li­er inter­view, Mr. Saroot decried the lack of inter­na­tion­al sup­port for the upris­ing against Mr. Assad. “We have become too used to hear­ing about the issu­ing of res­o­lu­tions which are nev­er imple­ment­ed,” Mr. Saroot said.

Mr. Saroot assert­ed in a You Tube video last sum­mer that the Assad regime was accus­ing him of being a Salafi fun­da­men­tal­ist who seeks to emu­late life as it was in the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and that is seek­ing to turn Syr­ia into a Salafi state.

“This accu­sa­tion was made when we took to the streets, demand­ing free­dom for the Syr­i­an peo­ple. I am now want­ed by the secu­ri­ty agen­cies, which are try­ing to arrest me. I declare, in sound mind and of my own voli­tion, that we, the free Syr­i­an peo­ple, will not back down until our one and only demand is met: the top­pling of the regime. We are not Salafis, and there is no truth to the regime’s claims about armed groups or a Salafi emi­rate,” Mr. Saroot said.

In August, Mr. Saroot report­ed on YouTube that Syr­i­an secu­ri­ty forces had arrest­ed nation­al soc­cer goal­keep­er Mosab Bal­hous on charges of shel­ter­ing armed gangs and pos­sess­ing sus­pi­cious amounts of mon­ey. He said Mr. Bal­hous too had been accused of par­tic­i­pat­ing in anti-gov­ern­ment protests and want­i­ng to estab­lish an Islam­ic emi­rate in the city of Homs.

In a col­umn last year in the Lon­don-based Ara­bic dai­ly Al Quds al Ara­bi, writer Elias Khoury describes a doc­u­men­tary enti­tled Al Waar (Rocky Ter­rain) by an anony­mous Syr­i­an film­mak­er that por­trays Mr. Saroot as a leader of the protests and a com­pos­er of some of its slo­gans and songs.

“His fea­tures are Bedouin, he is a thirsty per­son who is not sat­is­fied with only free­dom … It is he who com­pos­es for the noc­tur­nal gath­er­ings for a pop­u­lar fes­ti­val in the sub­urbs of Homs where the air bears bul­lets. The slo­gans are an appeal by a decap­i­tat­ed nation and the will of a peo­ple deter­mined not to bow to any­one,” Mr. Khoury writes.

“Go is the cry of the brave, A cry of the city with Bedouins, A cry of all reli­gions, The cry of Syr­ia and the land it cov­ers: Let them leave him and his dogs and the destruc­tion they have wrought,” the film quotes the chants of the pro­test­ers craft­ed by Mr. Saroot.

Mr. Khoury describes Mr. Saroot as the pro­tag­o­nist of the film whose voice chal­lenges the Assad forces’ weapon­ry. “Our weapon is our voice,” Mr. Saroot says in the film.

The film describes how the regime has put a reward of one mil­lion Syr­i­an pounds ($20,000) on the heads of alleged Salafis like Mr. Saroot. The goal­keep­er smiles at the word Salafi and chants: “Shed tears, shed for the young vic­tims and Syr­ia.”

Through­out the film a pic­ture of Bashar al-Assad super­im­posed on that of his father, Hafez al-Assad, con­sti­tutes the back­ground with the words, ‘Assad or noth­ing,’ a play on the slo­gan that accom­pa­nied the por­trait of Hafez dur­ing his rule: ‘Our leader in eter­ni­ty and beyond.’

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.