In South Sudan, play football so as not to go to war

Nine years after its independence, the youngest state in the world is still beset by violence and conflict. Sport can help bring people together, says a young South Sudanese who grew up in a refugee camp.

I was 8 years old when I left South Sudan for Uganda in 2000. At that young age, I didn’t understand why we were leaving Mayo, my hometown. I thought we were going to Raabhiok, a village about sixty kilometers away, to pay the dowry for my brother’s wife.

I thought that after this brief trip, I would return to find my mother at home. However, in our absence, the fighting between the Sudanese government forces and the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army [guérilla qui, à l’indépendance du Soudan du Sud, en 2011, devient l’armée officielle de ce nouveau pays] had intensified. There was no question of returning.

So we headed for Uganda. I remember this trip like it was yesterday. I remember sleeping under a leaking roof with Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, who was then the commander-in-chief. [de l’Armée populaire de libération du Soudan]. I remember this lion who followed us for almost an hour in the bush.

I also remember that it was the Dinka, a tribe that was supposed to be enemies of our own, who helped us along the way. The women of the Dinka families offered me roasted peanuts and fresh drinking water. These women said to my brothers: “He is too young. Why are you making him suffer? Leave it with us. We’ll take care of him. ” They couldn’t understand that such a young child was being taken on such a difficult journey to an unknown destination.

The corpses in nightmare

When I arrived in Uganda, the nightmares arrived. There is a memory that has come back to me night after night for years. I was picking wild fruits while my brother Matut grazed the cattle near our home. All of a sudden, I heard a crunch under my foot. I looked: it was the corpse of a soldier. Two vultures that were pecking him spread their wings widely. For eight years, every time I tried to sleep, the image of the dead came back to haunt me.

Everything changed when I started playing football with other young people from Imvepi refugee camp [dans le nord-ouest de l’Ouganda]. My nightmares were replaced by dreams of kicking the ball. Every night, I saw myself running with the other children, laughing.

Even though I was very young, I understood that sport can be a powerful tool in healing trauma. He had healed me. The other thing I loved about football was that the boys I played with weren’t all from my tribe.

Teams with different clans

In 2016, I decided with other refugees to create an organization that would deal with the conflicts in the refugee camps and to establish peace between the different ethnic groups. Once again, I saw that sport brought people together.

In 2018 and 2019, conflicts between different sub-clans erupted in Kiryandongo, a refugee camp located in west-central Uganda. The worst part is that the clashes started on a football field. The leader of the camp reacted by banning all forms of sport. I immediately went to the commander of the main camp with my team, with a simple suggestion: don’t ban the sport, change it. We pushed for them to keep the grounds open and for the teams to be made up of members from different clans.

This solution sounds very simple, but we have seen the results. The matches continued in the camps, which was vital for the physical and mental health of the refugees. In addition, they provide a space where people see themselves as members of the same team, as brothers and sisters.

Unite around a ball

Since the arrival of Covid-19, young Nuers, Kukus, Acholis, Kakwas, Azandes and Dinkas [différentes ethnies] work together to communicate information on preventive measures. I have no doubt that these friendships and teamwork are due to the fact that these young people are constantly playing together. Personally, some of my best friends are boys I played football with at Camp Impevi.

The conflict in South Sudan is a political conflict. As in many conflicts on the continent, politicians have played the tribal card to divide the population and gain support. The Dinka women who helped me when I was 8 years old and when I was fleeing Sudan taught me an important lesson: we are one people. The future of our country depends on our ability to come together. I am convinced that sport can help. South Sudan’s peace begins in our heads.

Simon Marot Touloung

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