Anger vs. joy: Playing football on 'the ruins of Aleppo'

    Story highlights

    • Football returns to Aleppo after five-year absence
    • Derby played between Al-Ittihad and Al-Hurriya

    (CNN)For football fans in Aleppo, a recent match provided a fleeting glimpse of what life used to look like.

    The local derby between Al-Ittihad and Al-Hurriya on Saturday January 28 marked the first time a professional game of football had been played in the war-torn city for five years.
      It had all characteristics of any normal match -- a sizable crowd, equipped with trumpets, drums and flags, cheering on the two sides.
      But for those who are no longer able to call Aleppo their home, this match was far from normal.
      "This is a media war, to show the regime has gotten Aleppo back and made it safe," Thaer, an opposition citizen journalist, told CNN.
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      He says he was forced to flee the city during the December evacuation of eastern Aleppo and now lives in Turkey. CNN is not publishing his last name out of concern for his safety
      "They forced half of Aleppo's resident out of their home," added Thaer. "They made them refugees all over the world.
      "These are lies. It is very upsetting to see, after all the blood letting and all the martyrs that died, the regime is acting as if nothing happened. They are playing football on the ruins of Aleppo."
      Late last year the rebel enclave was recaptured by government troops after a siege, and months of Russian bombardment eroded what little was left of eastern Aleppo's once-bustling commercial hub.
      Tens of thousand of people were forced to evacuate their homes under a ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and Turkey.
      During the siege, hundreds of thousands of residents were driven from the city, while as many as 11 million people across the country are estimated by the United Nations to have been displaced. More than half the Syrian population have been forced to flee their homes.

      'Indescribable, unnatural feeling'

      Not since Aleppo was split between rebel forces and the Syrian army in 2012 have football fans been able watch the city's two rival clubs, with both playing their home matches 175km away in the port city of Latakia.
      "It is an indescribable, unnatural feeling to return to the pitch, in the stadium in Aleppo, after five years," Al-Ittihad player Omar Hamidi told AFP before the match, which was played in the western part of the city.
      "Today we come back to the stadium, the people are out."
      Though the pitch was dry and dusty and the damaged buildings that surround the Riayat al-Shabab stadium provided evidence of many bombing campaigns, the atmosphere was like that of any other local derby around the world.
      "It has been five years, and we have been longing for anything to happen in Aleppo," one fan, Ghassan Mahmood, told AFP. "Now, football matches are taking place again. There is an atmosphere of safety and security in Aleppo."
      With the west of the city having always been under regime control, a large poster of Syria president Bashar al-Assad hung imposingly above the stands, while police in riot gear watched proceedings.
      For Thaer, however, the atmosphere was a far cry from when he had previously attended matches.
      "The residents of Aleppo love sports and they supported Al-Ittihad," he says. "When there would be games the stadium would be full and tickets would be sold out.
      "But now look at the stadium, it's a few hundred people. These are lies. Before the revolution we supported Al-Ittihad because they were our team in Aleppo.
      "But when the protests began the team split -- some who were against the government were forced to leave or detained.
      "We don't consider this a sports team, we consider them regime recruits; members of the government. Support for them has left our hearts."
      Al-Ittihad won 2-1 thanks to a last-minute Mohamed Sorour goal which at the time kept the club top of the Syrian Premier League, while Al-Hurriya remains in the relegation places.
      For many, whether for good reasons or bad, the end result was entirely irrelevant.