Through snooker, Syrian teen looks at life after war

Yazan al-Hadad in action at the Asian Snooker Tour Championship. International Billiards and Snooker Federation

Yazan al-Hadad was just 8 years old when Syria last hosted a major snooker tournament in December 2010. Life then was divided between school hours, darting off to play football with boys in the neighbourhood and sleeping against a giant Lionel Messi poster tacked to his bedroom wall.

He dreamed of weaving past defenders in the flaming red national jersey at the Abbasiyyin stadium in his hometown Damascus, and pictured his father cheering wildly from the stands. A football coach himself, his father didn't mind the aspirations.

But three months after the World Snooker Championship in Damascus, the revolution broke out. Pro-democracy protests against President Bashar al-Assad's regime erupted in the southern city of Daraa and escalated into a full-blown conflict that reached the capital city of Damascus and the second-largest city of Aleppo by 2012. The chaos rapidly deteriorated into a bloodbath, with no room for sport.

Slowly, the number of boys who turned up to play football alongside Yazan each evening began thinning. It was around the same time that he noticed the steady crowd around the two snooker tables at the local sports club. Five years ago, he began playing the sport and today Yazan happens to be the reigning under-18 national champion.

What about football?

Yazan slowly shakes his head from side to side, rests his chin against his brown cue case and stares at the tiled floor. The 17-year-old, who's in Bengaluru for the Asian Snooker Tour Championship, waits for Michael al-Khoury, the general secretary of the Asian snooker body and a fellow Syrian national, to put the loss of a dream into words. Yazan himself speaks little to no English but can follow what is spoken.

"You know," Khoury attempts, "to represent the national team was his greatest wish. But once the war started, he couldn't play football anymore."

Was it why he chose the safety of indoor sport? Khoury glances at Yazan again. His eyes are still fixed on the floor, his face glum. He's just lost a group league match 4-0 and is famished from having skipped breakfast out of pre-competition jitters. It's well past lunch time as we speak and Yazan pulls out a half-melted chocolate bar from his pocket and sucks at it to keep himself going.

"He's seen things happen before his eyes... terrible things," Khoury adds. "He's still recovering."

Three years ago, a suicide bomber detonated himself very close to Yazan's house, killing his neighbours and scarring him for life. The shock of blood, gore and death affected him so deeply that his family had to seek psychiatric help for his vocal chords to function again.

Before the war and the displacement, there were 1,200 registered snooker clubs across the country with an average of 100 players in each, Khoury tells us. In 2013, Syria finished bronze medalists in the men's team event at the Asian Indoor Games in South Korea. Now, there is no official count of clubs or players. "Many clubs were destroyed in the bombings and lots of our players fled the country, most of them to Europe."

Elected to the Asian snooker body headquartered in Doha in 2012, Khoury had the opportunity to leave Syria and work out of a safer country.

But he chose to stay back.

"It's a fight to regain normalcy -- sending our children to school, getting our factories back to work again. I didn't want to abandon my country when it's in a crisis. Would I leave behind an ailing mother?"

Khoury is not part of the overriding majority, though.

An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since March 2011, with many seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Though there's no way to tell the exact casualty figures claimed by the war, the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, in early 2016 pegged the estimated death toll at 400,000.

Yazan belongs to the new batch of players who represent a Syria resolved to find a way to rebuild itself. He practices six hours a day, earns a stipend from the Damascus government sports club and travels outside Syria for an average of five tournaments a year. The gap between him and a top-level player is still huge, his repertoire of "safety shots" still wanting and his ambition of becoming Asian champion a long way off.

However, Khoury is willing to wait.

"It's a slow crawl to recovery. We are now building everything from scratch," Khoury tells us, "our clubs, players, homes, country."