“We know no divisions”: UNMISS project helps build peace through sports in culturally diverse Yei
CENTRAL EQUATORIA - With the relative stability brought in by the Revitalized Peace Agreement of 2018 peace, Yei River county has seen an upsurge in voluntary returns of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who need an open yet protected outdoor area to assemble, conduct peace meetings, and converge for sports and cultural activities.
There is a subtext to this: The community itself wants to promote unity, enhance peaceful coexistence and contribute towards building a lasting, inclusive peace.
When apprised of their needs, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), responded immediately, by constructing a perimeter wall around the local football field in the Yei Freedom Square, the heart of the town, so to speak.
Peacekeepers didn’t stop there. They also built six permanent locker rooms for football players and toilets for men and women adjacent to the pitch.
Funding for this project was generated through the UN Peacekeeping mission’s Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) programme, which are small-scale, low-budget interventions designed to meet urgent community needs.
The project and its impact remain fresh in the minds of beneficiaries as well as of Lauro Ohiyu, a Protection, Transition and Reintegration Office from UNMISS working in Central Equatoria state.
“We all know the power of sports in enhancing team spirit, unity in diversity and peacebuilding,” revealed Lauro.
“Promoting reconciliation and coexistence across South Sudan as it prepares for elections is an important objective for UNMISS and I believe that, with this project, we have managed to achieve that end in a very concrete way,” he continues.
“We managed to create a secure space for youth and the larger community to congregate, be it for a football tournament, a community dialogue, or a cultural event. When communities come together it helps promote peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation, thereby encouraging more returns.”
John Kenyi Santino, Secretary of Yei Local Football Association (YLFA) echoed Lauro’s sentiment.
“Once you enter a stadium to watch a game, you become part of one big, happy family. We know no race, colour, or region here – you only come to cheer your team on, be happy and heal trauma caused by years of conflict,” said Mr. Santino passionately.
Local sportspersons faced hard times before UNMISS stepped in to support them.
“People were using the pitch as a walkway; even during games, people were riding bicycles and motorbikes across the field,” revealed Mr Santino.
Thanks to UNMISS, a solution has been found: “We now screen fans at the gate and refuse access to anybody carrying weapons to ensure safety for players and spectators alike,” he added.
“Improving the standard of football also means improving talents of players, and the more their talents are developed, they stand to gain better chances of becoming international sportspeople,” said James Yata Ambrose, Secretary of the Yei United Football Club.
Mr. Santino agreed. “Sports make good business sense and is a viable career option for young people,” he stated. “Once we have a sustainable peace, we must make every effort to develop our athletes,” he averred.
The 24 football clubs which constitute the Yei Football Association are drawn from different ethnicities and regions across the country, including Equatoria, Upper Nile and Bahr El-Ghazal.
The project was spearheaded by local implementing partner Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, CEPO, last year.