ASRIYA, Iraq — The suicide bomber who blew up a youth soccer match late last month left barely a dent in the hard, dry earth, a faint scorch on a concrete wall nearby.
But he gouged a chasm of grief in the heart of the small community that lost more than two dozen of its sons in a single moment, at 6:15 on the evening of March 25.
A total of 43 people died in the bombing at the game, according to figures provided by the local government. Of them, 29 were boys younger than 17 who had either been participating in the match or were watching their friends play.
The bomber also was a teenager, no more than 15 or 16 years old, judging by the picture of him released by the Islamic State, which asserted responsibility for the bombing, and the accounts of those who saw him at the match. The militants’ statement said the target was a gathering of the Shiite paramilitaries known as Hashd al-Shaabi, and the local government said two members of a militia were among the adults who died.
Yet that hardly explains the horror of an attack that inevitably would kill children.
The bomber “was a child, and he came to kill children,” said Mohammed al-Juhaishi, one of the sheiks from the area, who lost five relatives in the blast. “It was a children’s soccer game. Of course he knew he was going to kill children.”
For the boys of the impoverished, mixed Sunni-Shiite village of Asriya, 40 miles south of Baghdad in the area the U.S. military called the Triangle of Death, soccer isn’t a pastime. It is a passion and a purpose, offering the dream of escape from the grim monotony of life in one of Iraq’s more neglected communities.
One such boy was Mohaned Khazaal, aged 10, who lived for the sake of Real Madrid, his favorite team, and his idol, the team’s star striker Cristiano Ronaldo, said his brother, Ahmed, who is 12. Mohaned hoped one day to play for Iraq, and perhaps even Real Madrid, said Ahmed, who dreamed of playing for Barcelona and often got into fights with his brother over which of the rival teams was better.
They also both played for a local team, which did not qualify for the final of the youth league tournament. But they attended the match nonetheless, along with an older brother, Farouq, 20, and almost all of the other boys living in the soccer-crazed community.
The final took place between a team called Ahli and a team called Salam, which means peace. The venue was a dusty field in the middle of the village, unmarked except for the goal post at either end. Local officials watched from plastic chairs on a small podium erected at one edge of the field. The spectators, most of them boys, stood around the perimeter of the field.
Hardly anyone seemed to notice that one of the boys watching the game was wearing a thick jacket on a warm spring evening while all the other boys were dressed in T-shirts. Anmar al-Janabi, 12, who was standing near the oddly dressed boy, said he did notice, although he didn’t think to say anything to the adults at the match.
“He was a little tall with long hair and he looked different. He was wearing a thick jacket and it was hot,” he recalled. “He spoke to us. He said, “It’s a good game, isn’t it?’ ”
When the match ended, the boy in the jacket joined the scramble of boys converging on the podium to watch the awarding of the trophy and the medals, said Anmar, who attended the match with his 13-year-old brother, Walid, and a group of friends.
“Then he blew himself up, and I felt a fire hit my face,” Anmar said. “And then I ran away.”
Few parents had accompanied their sons to the match that day. Why would they? Most lived within a couple of hundred yards from the pitch, and boys gathered there every day, for matches or just to kick a ball around.
Abbas Ali al-Idani did, however, hope to attend. Earlier in the afternoon, he had received an excited phone call at work from his 13-year-old son, Karrar, who had just found out he would be playing in goal for the Peace team.
“He told me he was going to be a goalkeeper for the first time, and he asked me to bring him some gloves,” recalled Idani, who is a security guard for a local company. “But I was working, and I couldn’t leave.”
As soon as Idani’s shift ended, he rushed to a nearby store to buy the gloves. He heard the explosion as he stepped out of the store. Smoke was rising from the direction of the soccer field. Idani jumped into his car with a sense of dread.
Other people also were racing toward the field from their homes — parents, brothers, uncles, grandparents — all of them roused by the force of the blast. They arrived at the soccer pitch to find a tangled mess of broken children, body parts and blood. “We found pieces of children. There was human flesh all over the ground,” said Ibtisam Hamid, whose 16-year-old son, Walid, was among the dead. “It was like the end of the world.”
Anmar’s brother Bilal died in his uncle’s car on the way to a hospital. Mohaned Khazaal, the 10-year-old Real Madrid fan, died instantly, said his brother Ahmed, who escaped with a shrapnel wound to his face. His 20-year-old brother, Farouq, was badly burned and is in a hospital.
By the time Idani reached the soccer pitch, Karrar had been taken to the hospital. He died before his father arrived.
“What can we say? We can only thank God for everything,” he said.
Two weeks later, the entire village is still in shock. The wall beside the spot where the bombing occurred has been turned into a shrine, strung with photos of the dead boys, the bloodied remnants of their shirts and soccer balls. Black banners announcing the deaths hang on the walls of the many homes that lost sons.
Inside, families receive condolences in living rooms heavy with grief. Parents serve glasses of tea, show off photos of their dead children and cry.
Bilal, the brother of Anmar, was a star student who graduated at the top of his class in sixth grade and also was an ace soccer player who three times was voted player of the year for his local team, said his grandfather, Hamid al-Janabi. “His teachers came to visit us, and they were crying,” he said. “He was always near the top of his class.”
In the house diagonally across the street, the father of Walid remembered his son in a different way. “He was not so good at school,” said Adil Abed. “He failed many of his exams because he was always playing soccer.”
He was also kind, and loved birds, said his mother, Hamid. “After he died, people came to see me who I had never heard of before, and they told me Walid had been kind to them,” she said.
Mohaned Khazaal’s mother, Sana Yassin Musa, recalled her son in the family’s meager, three-roomed concrete home. “He was all about soccer. Soccer was in his soul,” she said.
Forgotten by almost all of those who survived the carnage was the outcome of the match. Among those interviewed, only Ahmed remembered the score. The team called Peace won, he said, by a score of 1-0. The team’s uncollected trophy has been placed at the site of the blast, surrounded by an arrangement of soccer balls, flowers and Iraqi flags.
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.