Aid & Development

Raqqa Stadium: From ISIS prison to centre of sports in the city

Syria

Raqqa stadium, once used by ISIS as their central Syria prison, has been renovated to host sports tournaments once again.

Raqqa stadium recently hosted a local football tournament, with Raqqa’s local team competing against Tabqa Football Club in a qualifying match for a place in the tournament’s final.

The stadium has been reopened amongst a backdrop of widespread destruction, but it is hoped that using the stadium once again will spread optimism amongst the city’s population. Residents hope that by holding sports competitions they can eliminate the message of extremism and hate, to be replaced with a competitive and cooperative community spirit. “You feel that life is full of hope for tomorrow,” said one of the spectators. “Life is better with sports”.

Raqqa’s football players realise the significance in holding the tournament at the stadium as it helps the residents of Raqqa recover from the horrific memories of life under ISIS rule. “This tournament is simple but its implications are great,” said one of the players. The Raqqa Sports Council have also pledged to host sport activities for women in the near future; something that would have been illegal under the rule of ISIS militants.

Despite the success of the tournament, behind the scenes remnants of the stadium’s use as a prison have still not been removed.

Known as “Site 11” to local residents, the stadium was converted into the central prison for the ISIS militants’ capital city during their almost four year-long occupation, between January 2014 and December 2017. The central prison was used by the militant group to incarcerate and torture people who had been arrested in Raqqa and the surrounding region. Often, arrests were made for negligible offences against the laws of the self-proclaimed caliphate. For example, if a man’s wife had her face on show in public, the man would be held in a small, dark hole, with barely enough space to sit down. Very few prisoners survived the ordeal.

“When I got out, I felt as if I was reborn,” said one former prisoner who was amongst a minority to be realised alive from the prison by militants.

The stadium was also the scene of one of the final battles by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to recapture Raqqa in its entirety. Together with the nearby hospital, the stadium was encircled by SDF troops, who had entrusted local Arab tribesmen fighting among its ranks to negotiate safe passage for the hundreds of militants and civilians trapped inside. The negotiations effectively brought the battle to an end, with a decisive victory for the SDF.

Since the conclusion of the Battle of Raqqa, which caused the destruction of up 90% of the city, residents have been working hard to reconstruct and rehabilitate their homes and businesses. The reopening of shops and restaurants in one part of the city, as well as the opening of a brand new hospital, signify a slow but steady return to normal life. In addition to the growth of the city’s economy which had been decimated in the fight to remove militants from the city. The reopening of Raqqa stadium is another small, yet defiant, step in returning to life post-ISIS.