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Violence has devastated South Sudan. Despite ongoing intercommunal conflict and years of civil war, communities in the remote region of Paguir refuse to give up something sacred: their soccer matches.
Soccer is just a game in much of the world. For people in Paguir, an area that is dealing with conflict, hunger, and intense flooding for years, it represents so much more — a respite from suffering, a way to connect, and a time to stand together. It hasn’t always been that way.
“Conflict among young people has been here for so long,” says John Wat, captain of a local soccer team from the village of Thok Chak. “This was bringing our community down, because people were afraid and they weren’t able to come together.”
One day, a handful of courageous young people decided that enough was enough. They, too, deserved a space to play, a space to escape—if for only a moment—the stress of living in an area ravaged by conflict and climate crises.
“The people who started soccer are the youth,” says John.
"At the beginning, it wasn’t easy because some people were coming with guns, so that made us feel a bit afraid. "
“But as we kept practicing together, people from [the villages of] Puyay, Puor, Thok Chak, and Paguir came together. That gave us hope.”
As dawn breaks, young people from neighboring villages meet under the boiling sun. They’re not there to fight. They’re there to play.
It’s a bleached-bright day, and the temperature feels like the slap of a heatwave. An audience has squeezed itself on the edges of the pitch, most of them under the hot sun. No one is missing this game. Elderly people, women, and children have all come to see their champions play the final game of Paguir’s soccer tournament.
Young people across South Sudan have long harbored a deep love for the sport, inherited from their parents and their grandparents before them. Until recently, the youth of Paguir didn’t have the community stability or equipment to be able to actually play the sport. They watched the last World Cup and imagined what it would feel like to play themselves.
One villager, who has always watched and cheered for both Liverpool and Barcelona, laughs when asked about his team loyalty. “It’s not uncommon here to support two teams,” he admits. “What is really uncommon here is to be able to practice soccer with a real ball.”
Without a real ball, the young people who were determined to play became resourceful. They came to Action Against Hunger’s Health and Nutrition Stabilization Center and asked for gloves to inflate into a hand-shaped ball to practice with.
“From the start, we were using a balloon,” says Ruot, captain of the Puyay team. “We asked for two or three gloves at the Stabilization Center. We pumped them with air and tied around them pieces of cloth until the gloves got strong. Then we played with them until they were damaged.”
The spirit of the sport was stronger than the lack of proper equipment, so the youth kept practicing. No jerseys to tell the teams apart, no nets, no real ball, no problem – they resolved to play at all costs.
“We are working hand in hand to clean the sheet from the past…that is why we are playing soccer together.””— Ruot Kong, 27, Captain of the Puyoy team
Joe Joe Zubahyea, who manages Action Against Hunger’s programs and base in Paguir, saw the young people’s love for the game and a chance to help. He quickly stepped in and offered the teams better equipment. With real soccer balls and jerseys, they gained a sense of hope. Now, many even hold the once-impossible dream of becoming professional footballers.
From the beginning, their goals were bigger than the soccer field. The teams want to foster peace in their communities. Joe Joe was there to help and advise. He suggested that each team should be made up of people from Puyay, Thok Chak, and Paguir—to unite people from all over the region a mutual love for sport.
"Soccer is creating reconciliation between us, the youth. Those issues from the past are decreasing. "
“There’s a big difference between the youth of today and those of the past. That is why we mix our teams. Whoever wants to play is welcomed.” – Ruot, Soccer Captain.
The youth are learning tolerance and acceptance, as well as essential leadership skills. “If you cool your temper, you show the good leadership that people need,” says John, captain of the Thok Chak team. “Then the rest will follow you.”
As the second half of the game begins, players from all over the district watch eagerly from the sidelines. Many play barefoot – they can’t afford shoes, but frequently walk for an hour in floodwaters to make it to practice on time.
In a country wracked by conflict that tore communities apart, it is remarkable to see young people from Puyay, Paguir, and Thok Chak go through such immense efforts to play on the same team.
There’s still a long way to go. The players stand united, but face the immense challenges of chronic inequality, hunger, and poverty each day. Still, they dream of playing professionally and they celebrate each other’s victories together. Ruot is from Paguir, but captains the Puyay team and proudly supports their wins.
“In the past, when there is fighting, those who die are the youth,” he says. “That is why we need people to forget everything they knew about these ways…That is why we are playing soccer together.”
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