“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more important than that.” – Bill Shankly, Liverpool FC manager (1959-1974).

For a group of 17-odd Rohingya youngsters, tucked away in a corner of south-east Delhi, playing football is not about “life and death” but avoiding the issue, if only for a few precious hours every weekend.

When the members of the of Rohingya Shining Stars Football Club came together for their regular training sessions at Shaheen Baug this weekend, the uncertainty over whether this could be the last time they play together as team was just another fear that had to be forgotten for a few hours.

The Supreme Court’s next hearing on the deportation of Rohingya Muslims is on Monday, September 11. With the Union government keen on deporting thousands of Rohingya refugees from India, the future simply looks bleak for these football aficionados for whom running is a way of life. Away from home and on the pitch.

On the subject though, their views are unequivocal. “Don’t send us back there,” is the team’s plea to the authorities. “If India does decide to deport us, we request them to shoot us here and now. That will be more humane.”

From left to right: Riyaz, Younous, Sayidul, Arfat, Ata-Ullah (Image: Suyash Srivastava)
From left to right: Riyaz, Younous, Sayidul, Arfat, Ata-Ullah (Image: Suyash Srivastava)

Mohammed Riyaz Siraj remembers the 24th of September, 2012, like it was yesterday. Riyaz, 24, is the captain of the Rohingya Shining Stars and strives to be an example for his fellow refugees on and off the pitch.

On that fateful day, Riyaz had crossed over to India near the Tripura-Bangladesh border and was handed some money and clothes by a policeman in Agartala, from where he reached Guwahati and then reached Delhi via train.

“Tensions had flared up after two friends of mine were killed,” he said. “[The military] caught me and beat me with a barbed-wire stick for three days. They let me go because the village people told them this boy teaches our kids and is a good example for them. I, half-dead, was transported home where my father asked me to escape in that condition.”

He added, “The policeman, the agent in Bangladesh, were all kind to me as they saw my lash wounds and knew that something terribly wrong was done to me. As soon as I came to Delhi, I was admitted at the Safdarjung hospital for 15 days, not knowing whether I would make it.”

Almost everyone on the team has similar wounds to show (the images are too graphic to be showcased here). Only 19 then, Riyaz, who works at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and teaches the Rohingya children English and mathematics in his spare time, has become an agent of change in the community.

“At first, the Shining Stars was set up to take our mind off the ongoing conflict back home and our daily challenges,” he said. “Now, we feel it could be a community outreach initiative which could serve the men, women and children and the team is ready to help out in other matters as well.”

The Kalindi Kunj settlement is home to about 74 Rohingya families (Image: Suyash Srivastava)
The Kalindi Kunj settlement is home to about 74 Rohingya families (Image: Suyash Srivastava)

While the Shining Stars is a Delhi-based club, the team has provided players to the much-larger Rohingya Football Club of India, which draws footballers from all over the country. The international Rohingya community has done something similar with the now-famous Rohingya Football club based out of Kuala Lumpur.

Playing with donated footballs and sporting worn shoes, the Shining Stars are a mix of young and old construction workers, factory employees, and IT technicians. The team has played against corporate teams, students from Somalia, Afghanistan and Jamia Islamia, and even have a trophy to show for their efforts.

On the back of the yellow jerseys, the community’s name is spelt incorrectly as “Rohangya”. Riyaz laughs when this is pointed out. “I had given money to a jersey maker,” he said. “As we didn’t have much with us, they weren’t upto the mark and he made a mistake which I discovered when I received the jerseys. He couldn’t reverse it, so we just wear them.”

The youngest, Mohammed Jashim, is just 16 and arrived in Delhi along with his parents when he was 11. He’d rather not speak about what he witnessed back home. “I try and not remember much from that time. This is a new start for us.”

Most members of the Rohingya community are from the Rakhine state of Myanmar and many in the Kalindi Kunj settlement are from the Maungdaw area, which has been declared a military operational zone. Others, like Ata-Ullah, 25, are from Kyaung Taung, which has seen heavy casualties with the numbers in the hundreds.

Ata-Ullah, at first very reticent to speak, had tales of horror to share: “There isn’t a single house in our village where the ladies have been spared by the military. I contacted my home recently and found out that two brothers of mine had recently disappeared. What they do with children is unimaginable.”

The jersey maker spelt Rohingya incorrectly (Image: Suyash Srivastava)
The jersey maker spelt Rohingya incorrectly (Image: Suyash Srivastava)

Most members on the team are hesitant to speak about the politics and the history of the conflict but Riyaz, arguably the most well-read of the group, does not shy away. “The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army is something we don’t know about,” he said. “We do know that the military want to legitimise the violence in the region and need an excuse to do so. Believe me, if we could go back, we would.”

Arfat Hussain, the striker of the team, speaks about the passion surrounding the game: “When I step onto that pitch, all our troubles are farthest from my mind. For us, it is a way of showing that we belong here, that we can also play well. We want to someday play in the [Indian] Super League here.”

The mood in the camp is a troubled one, however, with Monday’s hearing around the corner. Protest marches were held at Jantar Mantar but Riyaz said that although some people have supported their cause, others have harmed it. “We were carrying sticks for the banners and some sections of the media clicked those pictures and termed us terrorists, with headlines such as, “These people are out to kill you”, said a visibly upset Riyaz.

Like a lot of activities, football is also a tool to discriminate against the community back home. When asked about clubs such as Rakhine United and Ayeyawady United, which faced Bengaluru FC in the AFC Cup last season, Arfat said those clubs only allow Buddhists to play. For the Rohingya, they have to organise tournaments among villages or thanas (stations) and get written consent from the local authorities before they can play.

It's penalty time! (Image: Suyash Srivastava)
It's penalty time! (Image: Suyash Srivastava)

The mention of Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s name draws sharp glances from the team members. “She is a Nobel Prize winner known to the world for her protests against the dictatorship,” said a member of the team, who requested anonymity. “Her true face is not known to the world as these incidents flared up after she joined office.”

As they finish up at the Shaheen Bagh ground where they share space with locals playing cricket, Riyaz can be seen talking to the younger members of the team. “I teach them, but what can you tell them about the situation? They ask us about the situation in Myanmar, about what’s going to happen to us, but how do I answer? What do I tell them that does not cause them to panic?”

Preparing to go home, the oldest, Mohammed Younous, 28, speaks about the acts of “kindness” that has been bestowed on the refugees. “We’re only able to play here because we are allowed to, something that does not come by easily back home. We don’t want to lose this privilege.”

As it turns out, Shankly was wrong. More than 2,000 km from home, football is about side-stepping the life-and-death discussion for these 17 men.