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Football revival in South Sudan

JUBA, February 27 – It's a sight common all across Africa: barefoot boys kicking a football in the dust.SUDAN_FOOTBALLBut years of conflict in south Sudan traumatised a generation of children, a time when it was more common for teenagers to spend time fleeing battles — or even carrying a gun themselves — than to play a game of soccer.

Now in peace, efforts are being made through football to reach out to those affected, and support those who lost out on years of education.

"During the war, it was not possible to enjoy football like this," said Moses Bush, an 18-year-old taking part in a giant youth soccer tournament in the southern capital Juba. "We were too scared of being attacked."

The competition, organised earlier this month with 55 teams, is just one part of efforts to support those whose childhoods were scarred by the north-south war.

Some two million died and four million fled Sudan during the bloody 21-year conflict, battles that took a particularly heavy toll on children.

"Some of the children are extremely traumatised, others can get violent, depressed or withdrawn," said Cathy Groenendijk, director of the local organization Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC).

"Many lived in displaced people’s camps, others took part in the fighting itself".

The group, which organised the two-day tournament, works largely with teenagers left outside formal schooling.

"With help, some are able to find a place to put the issue of war aside, and to move forward with a positive life," added Groenendijk, whose group also provides catch-up classes and life-skills training to children.

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The CCC is planning a similar sports tournament for girls.

The war ended in a 2005 peace deal, but life remains tough for children.

Less than half of children in south Sudan receive five years of primary school education, compared to 93 percent in the war-torn western region of Darfur, according to UN figures.

But efforts are being made.

"Nothing like this was organised for us when we grew up," said 20-year-old Thiop Deng, kicking a ball on the sidelines while waiting for his game. "All we knew was war."

Like many his age, Deng spent the war in a basic camp after his village was destroyed.

Some 1.7 million people have since returned to south Sudan since the war ended, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

People from dozens of ethnic groups and with different languages now live alongside each other in Juba’s tightly packed tin-shack or thatch hut housing.

— Every child has a right to play —

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That has caused tensions, but schemes such as this are aimed to help to break barriers across different groups.

"We are meeting different people from different places and we are SUDAN_FOOTBALLplaying together," Deng adds, as the crowd cheer another goal.

To one side, men pour white lime to mark out an extra pitch on a bumpy patch of sloping waste ground to cope with the swelling number of players.

Organisers say they have been overwhelmed by the response to the scheme: while 40 turned up to a first training session, the word soon spread and some 700 players took part in the competition.

But it’s helping children by more than simply improving sport skills alone, organisers add.

"We are working with street kids, and we have seen a lot of them sniffing glue, spending all day just sitting around," said Sam Hinton, a volunteer who helped with football coaching and the tournament’s organisation.

"But this helps promote a healthy lifestyle, giving something more productive to do with their time," he added.

Experts say sport is a useful development too, building self-confidence, encouraging teamwork and supporting children who missed out on formal education because of the war.

"Every child has a right to play, and such schemes are an end in themselves," said Peter Crowley, who heads the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in south Sudan, which funded the tournament.

"But sport is also key way to reach out to people — a vehicle for messages such as HIV/AIDS awareness or gender-based violence — and can attract children back into education."

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While efforts are being made to improve schooling, alternative approaches target those not supported by government schools: only 1.9 percent of children complete primary education according to UN statistics.

But on a more basic level, it is showing them that there is another potential future than that they knew growing up in war.

"Many children here lost their families, and it’s a real challenge for us to show them that there are people who are concerned about them," said Sudanese football coach Robert Oliver. "That’s why competitions like this one make a difference."

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