Bartalla (Iraq) (AFP) – Spurred on by their coach, Christian girls kick the ball around a field in Iraq’s Bartalla, a former jihadist stronghold where football is helping them dream of a better future.
In 2014, the Islamic State group seized control of the town in its sweep through the northern province of Nineveh, before subjecting women and girls to a harsh interpretation of Islam.
Four years on from IS’s defeat the roughly 1,500 families who returned have been trying to restore a semblance of normality to Bartalla, about 12 kilometres (seven miles) east of Mosul, once the jihadists’ de facto capital in Iraq.
A football academy opened its doors to girls six months ago equipped with artificial turf, thanks to funding from Lara, an Iraqi Christian non-governmental organisation.
“Here we do everything to teach young girls the basics of football,” said coach Joanne Yusef Chaba.
The coach, a 22-year-old physical education graduate, said her dream was “to start a women’s team that will compete in the future” in one of two already established women’s leagues in Iraq.
Dressed in brightly coloured bibs, the girls do stretching exercises on the freshly laid pitch before Yusef Chaba blows a whistle for the start of practice.
After an exchange of passes, one of the players brings a ball under control before dribbling the length of the 40-metre (yard) pitch and unleashing a shot that rattles the post.
– ‘Lack of support’ –
“Being here allows us to forget hard times,” said Yusef Chaba, who fled to Arbil with her family two hours before the jihadists arrived in her hometown.
“Today when people see us, it raises their hopes and gives them confidence,” added the recent graduate who is looking for a job. “Here we forget about our daily worries.”
About 50 girls aged between 10 and 15 are enrolled at the academy where they attend two-hour training sessions twice a week.
Miral Jamal was six years old when she fled Bartalla with her family to escape the jihadists. Now aged 13, she is passionate about football.
“The players here feel good,” said the schoolgirl.
“Football relieves us… there’s nothing else to do in the city. I look forward to the training sessions.”
The families’ modest monthly contributions — between 5,000 and 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($3 and $7) — go towards renting the field on land owned by a church.
For other expenses, the four founders from local families dip into their own pockets.
Hala Thomas, who helped to launch the academy, recently travelled to Baghdad to meet with government officials and seek funding.
She received promises, but nothing concrete.
“We don’t have enough money to buy more balls, outfits or what we need for training,” said the 55-year-old, who opted to stay in her hometown rather than join her sons in the Netherlands.
“Despite the lack of support from sports institutions, we are hopeful that we can have a women’s football team,” she added.
– ‘Breath of fresh air’ –
During its three-year rule over nearly a third of Iraq, IS subjected hundreds of thousands of women to its rigid interpretation of Islam, using beatings and executions as punishments.
In Mosul and its surrounding province, jihadists raped, kidnapped and enslaved thousands of women and adolescent girls.
After the IS onslaught in 2014, tens of thousands of Christians fled northern Nineveh province, some escaping to nearby Iraqi Kurdistan and others going into exile.
That only worsened an exodus since the US-led 2003 invasion, which has seen Iraq’s Christian minority shrink from more than 1.5 million to only around 400,000.
Across the Nineveh plain, churches and monasteries destroyed and burned by the jihadists have been restored.
But the challenges of rebuilding remain daunting in the ravaged province.
“Football is a breath of fresh air for any community,” said neighbourhood leader Bassem Metti.
“We needed something that would encourage stability in our daily lives and that would start to be tangible.”
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