Theatrical carnage of Isis leaves young victims from Iraq to Manchester

The targeting of boys playing football or girls going to a concert is grim on so many levels

Iraqi relatives and friends mourn  victims of a suicide bomb attack in Iskandariyah, a town 40km south of Baghdad, in March 2016. Photograph: Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi relatives and friends mourn victims of a suicide bomb attack in Iskandariyah, a town 40km south of Baghdad, in March 2016. Photograph: Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images

 

One of the eyewitness reports stated the explosion occurred just as a brand new ball was being thrown to the happy throng of children, parents and football volunteers.

“The suicide bomber cut through the crowd to approach the centre of the gathering and blew himself up as the mayor was presenting awards to the players,” an 18 year-old local called Ali Nashmi, told the Agence France Presse news agency.

“Most of the crowd were young people, I could see them strewn across the field, some dead, others wounded asking for help,” said Haidar Kadhem. “It was just chaos.” Kadhem spoke to Al Jazeera – owned by the Qatar government.

What the two young men had witnessed was an Islamic State-sponsored suicide bomb attack in a town called Iskandariya, south of Baghdad, in March 2016.

Initially the death toll was reported at 26, then it rose to 29 and as the hours and days passed a tally of 41 was recorded. Whether that was the final number seemed uncertain but an official of Babel province, was quoted as saying: “Seventeen of those killed are boys aged between 10 and 16.”

Even by the standards of war-ravaged Iraq, the attack caused outrage. These were boys at a local football tournament. It brought comment from Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations and from Gianni Infantino at Fifa.

Unnamed victims

But as the days became weeks and months a troubling thought – one of many about such an incident – was that, at least in our media, the murdered boys went unnamed. They disappeared into the dust and chaos of Iraq and into the catalogue of Isis crimes.

This is not our fault. Trying to discover more detail first from the UNHCR, then the UN and then from a captain in Iraq’s ministry of the interior took plenty of phone calls and emails for not much information. Finally, last September, a local captain answered the phone. His English was good and he said he would get back. He never did, which is not a complaint, though it is a worry. Calls since have gone unanswered.

The request was simple: what was the name, or names, of one or more of the Iskandariya clubs involved? After that, would it be possible to get some names of the boys killed?

This was a basic starting point. From there we might be able to build some understanding of what it is like to be a teenage footballer in Iraq perhaps day-dreaming of a call from Manchester United. And from there, well, we might just understand a bit more in general.

Manchester response

Standing in St Ann’s Square in Manchester on Thursday morning for the minute’s silence makes you reconsider this kind of thing. If that sounds like what-aboutery, it is not designed to, but seeing the huge and heartfelt response to Manchester’s atrocity on Monday – and the length and depth of coverage – it brought back how little we know about places like Iskandariya and the fact they play football there amid terror.

Now Iskandariya and Manchester now have a terrible connection. One of the characteristics of Isis outrages is theatrical carnage. The targeting of boys playing football or girls going to a pop concert is grim on so many realms and Isis know that. They understand how upset we will be. They understand curtailing these small freedoms means something: if life is ended by the living of it, why kick a ball or sing a song?

An educational article by the respected reporter Patrick Cockburn on Thursday said that we should think of Isis/al-Qaeda as an Islamic Khmer Rouge, which makes you pause. It is already clear that “Western practices” – singing and kicking a ball – are targets, but then as Cockburn argues, at governmental level, they know that Saudi Arabia and Qatar offer the ideological roots of this fanaticism and today, perhaps, more than that. But still they trade.

Fifa must have some inkling too. Fifa will definitely know that Qatar stages the 2022 World Cup and that Saudi Arabia are on course to qualify for Russia 2018.

There is much talk of Qatar using the “soft power” of football to wield political influence but deep down we know that the hard power of money talks louder. Despite the heat, despite the deaths of Nepalese construction workers in Doha, despite what Saudi Arabia may or may not know about Salman Abedi from south Manchester, the show will go on.

But not for the boys of Iskandariya. They did not possess soft power, they had no power – just like the girls in Manchester’s Arena. All these boys wanted to do was kick a ball around, not as a political act, not as a cultural impersonation, but because the game is a good one. And we don’t even know their names.

Soccer reckons with its north-south divide

Manchester is a Champions League city again. Admittedly walking from Deansgate towards the so-called Northern Quarter on Wednesday night, this was hardly dominating thoughts, but then there’s that fixture at Wembley on Monday – Reading versus Huddersfield Town – and that does make you think about English northern-ness.

Manchester United’s victory over Ajax in the Europa League means there will be five English clubs in the Champions League next season. Two of them, the top two, Chelsea and Tottenham, are London clubs; the other three – Liverpool, Manchester City and United – are northwest clubs.

Superficially that looks good for the north. But then Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hull have just been relegated and geography has become an issue in English football.

Should Reading defeat Huddersfield, it would mean only Burnley and the promoted Newcastle United are north of Manchester. It would mean next season’s Premier League will have 10 clubs from south of Watford – including Watford of course.

That’s a shift and it is understandable to see a correlation between football’s decline and the removal or deterioration of northern industries such as mining, ship-building and manufacturing since Thatcherism took a grip of Britain.

Unquestionably the economics of society plays a part in a club’s fortunes – Hull City’s commercial draw is hardly that of Chelsea’s.

But geography should not be used an excuse. Rather, it is only part of an explanation as to why clubs such as Leeds United fail.

And they fail, in the main, due to misguided or erratic ownerships, sometimes greedy, who make hasty decisions.

That is not as interesting sociologically as geography, but Leeds United are a case in point, as are Blackburn Rovers, as are Sunderland. Those clubs have not been well-run over a period of years. But you only have to look at Queens Park Rangers to see it’s not all about geography.

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