Stockholm -- The stadium is empty of the Assyrians. The place is desolated. The wind is howling like a hammer. No one is here, and it is not surprising. Assyriska FF has neither training nor match today. Yet there is a parallel to make, a connection extending from the safe streets of Sweden to the infernal Iraq.
For the first time in almost 2,000 years, the church bells have stopped ringing in Nineveh. The city is empty of Assyrians. The place is desolated. The wind of evil howls like a hammer upon the minority who now face extinction. The people have been forced to choose between escaping, converting to Islam - or die.
What once was called Assyria? Now there is only Assyriska, the team that has been the stateless peoples national football team for forty years.
This autumn, the Assyrians are fighting two great battles. Both are about survival. There are more than 3000 kilometres between Sodertalje and Nineveh - the new and old capital of the Assyrians - but there is no difference between this club and this people.
Time changes reality, time changes the world. Once upon a time Assyriska FF was a football team on the rise, a dancing debutante in Swedens greatest football stage -- Allsvenskan.
Bethnahrin Barqasho has been a supporter since childhood. She has been around since the times of the old stadium Barsta IP, where Assyriska went from crushing IFK Gothenburg with 4-0 after seventeen minutes to losing against Enkoping by one goal.
"This is our national team, it symbolizes our country. The club has brought together our people and got Assyrians around the world to laugh, cry and breathe Assyriska. It still is" -- but something has changed.
Indeed it has. 2005 was the year when Assyriska barged into the premier division party as a dodging, flashing rascal. The club grew so large that FIFA's official website and a Japanese newspaper wrote about the first immigrant team in the Swedish elite football, and how it shimmered in the spotlight. In Turkey, Dr. Mehmet Celik could not hold back his rage in a television studio.
"They are called Assyriska! They will spread the name all over the world!"
His voice was fiery and intense, and it was understandable. Surely Assyriska played their matches in a Swedish football league, but they seemed to take greater battles off the field and beyond the country's borders.
When the team welcomed Halmstad in its home premiere, the players wore black armbands in honor of a half million victims on the 90th anniversary. The club was the voice of the people, and this voice was raised to get a genocide in Turkey recognized. It was deafening for nationalists as Dr. Celik.
It has been ten years since Assyriska bursted towards Allsvenskan. Time changes the world. Time changes reality.
This season has been tough, strange, failed. The first six matches Assyriska played as a top team. They attacked with creativity and finesse, was considered the best attacking team in the league - but they could not score on their chances, so the loss of points became more and worse.
Coach Azrudin Valentic was fired, the experienced Soren Akeby took over. It does not matter.
Assyriska are in the bottom of the league and still without a victory in Sodertalje Football Arena - but the loss of the home is worse than the losses at home. The Assyrian award-winning journalist Nuri Kino explains:
"Our people - Assyrians, also called Syriacs and Chaldeans - and the Yezidis, were previously the majority of the Nineve Plain, which is emptied of its population. Our churches are being destroyed, our women and children are being kidnapped. It is enough. The world needs to open its eyes."
How serious is the situation?
Hammarby players showed support
While the Assyrian Federation of Sweden is actively working to shed light on the difficult situation of the Assyrians, Kino runs the global campaign "A Demand for Action." Together with members in 15 countries, he is working to get refugees sheltered.
Kino is doing his best to get the world to act. So does the supporters of the club.
A few weeks ago, Assyriska went to the Swedish capital to face Hammarby at Tele2 Arena. The supporters wore shirts with the Arabic letter "N", the same letter as the terrorist organization IS painted on the Christian homes in Iraq, just like the Nazis did to the Jews during The Holocaust. "N" stands for "Nasrany", which means Christians.
Kino talks about a reaction to this action:
"The priest Ashur Elkhouri published a picture of himself where he bows his head for his national team for what it did during the game against Hammarby. Normally, a priest bows his head only to God, so evidently the feelings were very strong. I was at a meeting in a church in Los Angeles when the game was played, and the action made many in the church cry."
During warm up, there were four Assyrians preparing themselves for the game against their parent club. They come from Assyriska, they play for Hammarby. Stefan Batan, Nahir Besara, Andreas Haddad and Kennedy Bakircioglu wore white T-shirts with a clear message on the front: The Arabic "N". Later Kennedy scored a free kick and refused to celebrate.
When there seemed to be no hope left, Assyriska levelled the score and in stoppage time, the Assyrian striker Mattias Genc jumped and headed the ball towards goal, but hit the crossbar. It was the season in a nutshell, a sequence of frustrating symbolic. It was just like the game against ostersund at home, when Fredrik Holster hit the same woodwork in the same minute. It was just like the game last monday, against Degerfors, where Assyriska hit the post and the crossbar two times, but lost by one goal.
Player's cousin beheaded
The team captain David Durmaz tries to pinpoint the problem. He played in Assyriska during the time in Allsvenskan and thinks that the club has a very different spirit now compared to ten years ago. Back then, the short passings were a bit faster, the sharpness a bit edgier, the organization a bit more more professional. Now Assyriska creates chances without winning. Now they have to turn the tables as a united club. But off the field?
"On the way to our last game against Degerfors, our midfielder George Makdessi showed me a YouTube clip on his cellphone. His own cousin, with the same last name, completely exhausted and wounded by gunshots is lying in a bed. An IS-flag is seen and someone asks him in Arabic what his name is, what army he was an officer for. After a while, the clip ended. George said that the man's father had received photos a few days later. The pictures are showing the man lying in bed -- beheaded."
Durmaz feels powerless and thinks of drastic actions. The defender wants to defend his people.
"I participate in demonstrations and donate money, but if it would not be for my family and for me having a responsibility ... I know that reality is not that simple, but the idea hit me to just go down there and help my people, just help. The situation is..."
He pauses, making an effort to find the most accurate word.
The team captain then gets a special depth in his voice:
"If everything on the field had went well, the people would have something to be happy about, but now, not even the team is contributing with something positive. Our people are in pain from all perspectives. As a supporter, you come to the stadium and try to forget the nightmares for a while. You come to escape to a free zone, which is actually exactly what our people down there need. And still, you get your heart horribly broken even in this free zone."
So what is the difference between survival and survival? On one side, Assyriska needs to start hitting the target, on the other hand the Assyrians are living targets. Sure Mattias Genc needs to continue to jump highest towards the sky, but meanwhile, the smoke rises to the sky as ancient churches burn down.
Although the team is about to lose its land, the battle continues - on two fronts.
"It is never wrong to focus on football too," says Nuri Kino.
"It is a part of the fight."
And the fight goes on. On Sunday, Assyriska will play against Varnamo at Sodertalje Football Arena. The stadium will most likely not stand empty, but the wind may still howl like a hammer.
Much like home, much like Iraq.
There are more than 3000 kilometres between Sodertalje and Nineveh - the new and old capital of Assyrians - but nothing else. This autumn the Assyrians are fighting two great battles.
One is about survival.
The other is also about survival.
Translated by Orkina Zeito.