Running Free: How sports can be used as a tool for peacebuilding

11 Feb 2016

Running Free: How sports can be used as a tool for peacebuilding

As soon as the starting whistle blew, 12 women crashed into me, one after the other, hitting as hard has any man ever could. When all of the the runner’s finally passed I could see 50 women tearing off into the distance down the back road of the Bentiu POC site in Unity State, South Sudan.

However, instead of running for their lives, these women were running free in the inaugural Bentiu community fun run. The race was the first major sporting event to be held in the camp and saw participation from the UNMISS Peacekeepers, the IDP community, humanitarian workers, UN Police and UNMISS civilian staff.

The Bentiu POC site is the largest in South Sudan and home to approximately 120,000 people seeking protection from the brutal civil war that has torn the youngest country in the world apart.

For a community that has suffered so much hardship over the last few years, the race was a chance to forget, even if for just a few hours, and have some healthy fun. In front of a crowd of 40,000 people 50 women and 70 men raced along the 4km road around the UN camp.

As the female competitors walked to the starting line one woman broke out into song and in response to her joy, everyone began cheering. IDPs, peacekeepers, police and humanitarians were all singing together as a symbol of unity.
The women’s race was won by a young South Sudanese woman wearing a loose flowing dress and no shoes.  As she crossed the finish line she was carried high in the air by the nearby crowd, she was a hero of her people. For one brief moment she was no longer an IDP, but a champion athlete and the pride of her community.
The men’s race was won by a Ghanaian peacekeeper, with two IDPs coming in second and third. Most IDPs ran with no shoes making their achievements all the more impressive. A trophy celebration was held after the race followed by dancing led by the Ghanaian Military Band.

Sport can be used as a powerful tool to promote peace, tolerance and understanding by bringing people together across boundaries, cultures and religions. It highlights values such as teamwork, discipline, respect for the opponent and the rules of the game, solidarity, social cohesion and peaceful coexistence. Sports can be used as an instrument to rebuild trust in communities that have been riveted in conflict and are experiencing the post-traumatic effects of conflict.