The soldiers in the particular wars I’ve cover don’t have uniforms. In Somalia, Mali, Libya, Congo, the rebels, warriors and fanatics all, if anything, blur into one.
One particular contradiction of 21st century war is that the revolutionaries who fight in the name of Allah love to wear the jerseys of European soccer teams. Humans are, on one hand, reasonable and on the other, absurd.
These men are ready to die for God and for their cause, hating everything Western — and yet they go into battle or take to the streets wearing names like Ibrahimovic, Messi, or Kaka on their backs.
On one of the last days of the revolution that would bring down the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi, I was captured in Tripoli and hauled into the den of some mercenaries of the falling dictator. Underneath the soldiers’ camouflage, with their defeat imminent, were the glowing jerseys of Chelsea, Arsenal and Real Madrid.
Surrounding the pickup truck, in which my execution was interrupted, was a man with darker skin than the others. He was a Colonel from the African Legion and had followed the entourage after my driver was killed. Underneath his jacket I saw a shirt that I recognized all too well: white with red and black stripes, the jersey of my own team — A.C. Milan.
This was like a sign from home, a ray of hope. In my trying to connect with his superiors, this united us. I tried to signal to him: “Nice shirt …” He looked at me and then, briskly, began to take off his ammo belt to show off the jersey. “You like it? Is it your team?”
Soon we Westerners won’t be able to tell these sorts of war stories. We’ll be forbidden to travel to these areas. It’s the era of ghosts, of jihad without hope. We are the enemy, both despised and feared at the same time.
The only way of communicating with these remaining ghosts and puppets seems to be soccer — the mediocre religion of victory, of a round ball. It’s perhaps the fault of Al Jazeera, the revolution’s Big Brother that brings rebel slogans to the masses, as well as the most important European Championship games: the top leagues in England, Spain, and Italy. From Mauritania to Syria, the world that lives with the television perenially switched on knows all the names of the heroes in the European stadiums.
Winners and losers
In Bamako earlier this year, I felt a nation's anguish when war was knocking at the door with half of Mali in the hands of al-Qaeda. Locals were waiting for the French to get through Niger and take back Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. It was here that among all the things forgotten, they always remembered the names of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Around the huge mosque in the market there I only saw hateful eyes; the foreigners had all left, the misery that had been there for years was worse than the antichrist. The only stalls there that did any trade were those that sold soccer jerseys. I even found A.C. Milan’s fullback Ignazio Abate, a jersey that's hard to find in Italy.
Perhaps soccer brings thrills from life elsewhere; supporting a team together forges a strong bond, demands obedience. Barcelona is a team adored the world over, even by those who know little of Spain. Why? “Because they win,” is the response I usually get.
In Syria, in Aleppo, I saw teenage revolutionaries wearing their jerseys as they set off for the front line, their weary souls visible in their eyes. Later, in the city's Salaheddin district, a poignant silence reigned for a moment to before I saw some of these adolescents killed. The jerseys were the only splashes of color amongst the rubble.
I don’t know if these soccer superstars are aware that they’re the last in the world who possess the secrets of an extraordinary magic, giving emotions to people who hunt everyone with the devil in their body. When they’re fighting to kill each other, they often don’t have any faith left, not even for survival.
I was a prisoner in a Syrian city called Al Qusser for five months this year, and my captors had also kidnapped an enemy soldier, stripping him of his uniform, boots, bulletproof vest. They gave him a Real Madrid jersey to wear instead.
“When they don’t need us any more, they’ll kill us,” the man announced to me, glaring toward the leader of our captors.
But by the next time I looked at him, my fellow prisoner's gaze looked so melancholic that it seemed he had already left life behind. “Are you Italian?” he asked me. “I only know one thing about your country, Juventus. I have a jersey back at home, in peace.”