By James M. Dorsey
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. Balhos 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.’
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.