ALEPPO, Syria: Bathed in the fluorescent light of a sparse basement in Syria’s war-torn Aleppo city, young boys pummel red punching bags under the close supervision of a former national boxing champion.
The rhythmic sound of gloves at Shahba boxing club can at times drown out the blasts of air strikes and shelling coming from eastern parts of the city.
“I come to the center to train because I’ve dreamt of becoming a boxing champion since I was a little boy,” says Omar, a young trainee with dark, straight hair.
“When this center opened, I started coming here so I could make my dream come true. For the past four years, we’ve had no sports activities at all, only destruction and shelling,” he says.
Since Syria’s bloody conflict erupted in March 2011, more than 260,000 people have lost their lives and millions have been displaced.
According to the United Nations, more than two million Syrian children are out of school, and one in four schools has been destroyed.
Syria’s second city Aleppo has been divided by a dangerous front line since 2012, with government forces controlling western neighborhoods and rebel groups the east.
Opposition fighters fire rockets into the west, and regime forces pound the east with mortars and air strikes.
In opposition-held areas, dozens of young children are finding a new life at the Shahba boxing club, where they train for free.
“Because of the war in Syria and especially in Aleppo province, sports activities stopped altogether, including boxing,” says Shaaban Kattan, who founded the club.
Kattan, 31, began boxing professionally in 1994 and became Syria’s national champion only a year later, going on to win gold medals across the region.
Slender with short, buzzed hair, Kattan walks the ruined streets between the gym and his modest home, which is full of trophies and professional head shots.
Along with colleague Ahmad Mashallah, Kattan opened the club in the summer of 2015 to bring boxing back to a conflict-ravaged city.
“We opened the Shahba club centre to get back to our former level and participate in Arab and Asian competitions again,” Kattan tells Agence France-Presse.
Kattan and Mashallah rented the underground basement, previously used as a warehouse.
They kitted it out with equipment that they bought from another gym in Aleppo city which had closed.
At a training session, about a dozen teenage boys in nylon exercise clothes were doing push-ups in the boxing ring before Kattan handed each a pair of gloves.
Taking turns, they flitted around the ring trading punches with Kattan, who assessed their performance.
The boys also take part in local tournaments hosted by the gym.
Late last year, Kattan and Mashallah staged a tournament for some of their younger pupils as well as one for older children, including competitors from the northwestern province of Idlib, central Homs, and Raqa — a bastion of the Islamic State jihadist group.
More advanced boxers — including some of the trainers themselves — plan to compete in a tournament open to men living in opposition-held areas.
“Among the young boys, we now have some who have reached very good levels, and it’s the same with the adolescents,” Mashallah says.
“We’re preparing to take part in championships outside Syria and to compete for the prime spots, whether on the Arab or foreign level,” he adds.
With a shy smile on his face, he reckons his trainees “have what it takes to become future champions.”