Dressed in brightly coloured athletics outfits identifying their home areas, hundreds of young sportspeople paraded proudly around the field to the beat of a band as they came together as ambassadors for peace.
The group of 500 youngsters had just spent more than a week engaged in fierce competition in their chosen sports, whether it was football, volleyball, basketball or wrestling. But they participated in the event in the spirit of promoting peace and social cohesion as part of National Unity Day.
The annual event is sponsored by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and supported by the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.
Dancing to the melody of drumming and singing by the Orupap group, representing 64 tribes, the athletes reveled in the traditional performance at the closing ceremony of the nine-day event before enjoying cultural shows from Rwandan and Nepalese peacekeepers serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
The event provided an opportunity for young people from across the country to show off their athletic prowess but also to make life-long friendships with others from across the country.
“We lost 3-0 in the final volleyball tournament to the Wau team after real business in the field,” says Achol Tabitha, a player from Jonglei. “But when the match ended, they consoled us and we ended up celebrating together, including with the fans.”
Tabitha’s observation about embracing love for unity resonated with Martin Saba, an athlete from the Eastern Equatoria region, who enjoyed the freedom to play with people from diverse backgrounds in the neutral location of the capital Juba.
“Still I cannot believe that it has been possible for me to meet my desire to know and interact with new faces freely here in Juba,” he says, suggesting that if the experience was repeated in all regions, the longed-for unity among different communities would be achieved in a heartbeat.
Young people across South Sudan have suffered immensely as the result of the five-year civil war. Many lost their lives, were forced to flee their homes, suffered sexual violence and were denied access to education and healthcare as a result of the conflict that erupted in 2013.
The rapprochement event was an opportunity for the 500 athletes to come together with up to 4000 fans to promote reconciliation and peace.
Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, Nadia Arop, challenged the youngsters to utilize the unique platform provided by the event to think about their contribution to peacebuilding when they return home.
“It is now your roles as peace ambassadors to do, talk and conduct activities related to peace promotion in your areas,” she said. “You also need to keep in touch with the friends you made here from other regions.”
The role of UNMISS in South Sudan is to work in partnership with the people to protect civilians and build peace. Speaking at the closing ceremony, the Mission’s Police Commissioner, Unaisi Vuniwaqa, urged the players to be part of and, to build, a bigger team for peace in South Sudan.
“You need to be inclusive and encourage tolerance to reach your shared goal as a good team. One player might be very skilled and the other might not, but it complements the strength and wellbeing of each one of you.”
This applies, not only in sports, but in peacebuilding too, she said.