From Genocide to the World Cup: The amazing Story of Darfur United

Published in Haaretz: http://www.haaretz.co.il/magazine/.premium-1.2465272

The ConIFA Football World Cup, which took place in June this year, attracted fewer spectators than the FIFA World Cup in Brazil that started a few days later. The tournament took place in Östersund in Northern Sweden in a stadium Which only seats 6,600 people. Its participants were teams representing nations and peoples who are not part of FIFA. Some teams represented states not recognized by the international community like the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Iraqi Kurdistan, others represented ethnic minorities and stateless people like the Tamils from Sri Lanka and the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia. The tournament ended with a dramatic penalty shootout in which a team representing separatists from the French-Italian border beat a team from the Isle of Man.

For most teams participation was a multi-cultural celebration and a rare opportunity to participate in an international tournament. However, the tournament also had a political side to it. Because acceptance by FIFA, the federation managing international football, involves a difficult political struggle, participation in the alternative world cup in Sweden was, for many teams, an assertion to bring issues to international attention. Every team had its own agenda – independence aspirations, demands for cultural autonomy or human rights struggles.

However, for one team the tournament in Sweden was something more concrete and existential. For them it was more than a festival of folklore and culture, it was an opportunity to tell the world their story and even start a new life. The Darfur team arrived from the refugee camps in Chad to which they had fled from the genocide which has been raging in their country for well over a decade. Unlike the other competitors, they came from a place where it was almost impossible to play football. Some escaped from burning villages, others survived massacres by cruel militias, many lost family members. Despite all this, 15 players succeeded, with the help of an American NGO called i-ACT, to overcome the horrific events of their past, and all the financial and diplomatic challenges and finally arrived at the tournament in Sweden. The fact that they came from different refugee camps, belonged to different tribes, spoke different languages and connected, despite everything, to one team, granted the team its name – “Darfur United”.

***

Since 2005 the American NGO i-ACT has been assisting survivors of the genocide in Darfur mostly by creating personal connections with refugees who escaped Sudan and running educational and social programs in the refugee camps in Chad, Sudan’s western neighbor. The NGO also deals with raising international awareness to the situation in Darfur and Chad through projects of documentation and appeals to American public opinion .

“From our first visit to the refugee camps on the Chad-Darfur border, we became aware of the refugees' love for football and of the power this sport had to create a space where they stopped being refugees or victims", says Gabriel Stauring, co-founder and director of i-ACT, "when they had a ball and arranged some rocks to be the goal posts, they got to experience joy.” A few years later the i-ACT team took the idea a few steps further. “The idea for Darfur United first came about when one of our teammates, Ian, who had traveled to the camps with us told us about a tournament that was to happen in Iraqi Kurdistan in June of 2012. It was a tournament for teams representing groups of people that were not represented in the football world by FIFA. It seemed like an impossible dream to make this happen, given the enormous challenges, but our team loves those challenges, when they work towards our mission of putting a face on the numbers”.

Putting a face on the harsh statistics and numbers of victims in Darfur is one of i-ACT’s main goals and the faces of the Darfur United players represent the young generation in the refugee camps in Chad. One of them is 26 year-old Abdul-Hamid who comes from a small village in Geneina, Western Darfur. “One morning in the summer of 2003” he recalls, “Members of the Janjaweed militia (An armed militia that operates in Western Sudan and Eastern Chad supported by the Sudanese government) came to my village. Some arrived in vehicles, others rode horses and camels. It was at around 5 am and the militants, who were armed with guns and RPGs, while shouting that all Africans should be driven out  of Darfur, they started killing the inhabitants and burning the village. When they were finished, helicopters came and dropped bombs on the burning village. There were around 500 residents in the village and only 4 families managed to escape”. Abdul-Hamid escaped with his parents and they found shelter in one of the refugee camps in Chad.

19 year-old Saleh has a similar story. He too remembers the Janjaweed raid on his village in Rahad El Berdi in the summer of 2003. “First they gathered our animals”, he says, “They killed anyone who resisted, then they raped the women. Finally, the helicopters came and dropped bombs as the Janjaweed militants circled the village and shot anyone who tried to escape.” Saleh, who was nine at the time, managed to escape the village and was reunited with his parents and sisters three days later in a nearby village. One of his sisters was shot in her abdomen and died soon after. As he was escaping, Saleh saw bodies of other family members lying in the streets. Like Abdul-Hamid, Saleh and his parents also escaped to Chad and found refuge there.

At around the same time, now 26 year-old Ismail from Ed El Kheir in North-Western Sudan, also arrived in Chad. He too escaped his hometown in 2003 while it was burning and surrounded by the Janjaweed. He was saved by his aunt and uncle, leaving his mother behind. After walking for a week, he arrived at Touloum refugee camp together with tens of thousands of refugees. “We lived in small tents, without electricity, running water or toilets.” He says, “The food ration we got for a month usually lasted around five days and there was a big shortage of medicines”.  But the hunger and diseases were not their only problem. Ismail tells of mistreatment by the Chad authorities, of women being raped when they left the camp and of a deficient education system. “ It’s a very sad life” he says, “a life of idleness, without hope”.

“In the beginning the condition at the camp was acceptable” Abdul-Hamid, who was living in Farchana refugee camp, adds, “Aid organizations provided food and medicines and it was relatively safe. But now the Chad government took over the camps, the good medicines are taken by the authorities and there is a lack of food and a serious water shortage”. Abdul-Hamid says he witnessed rapes of women who were out collecting firewood and kidnappings of young men, probably as a method of recruiting them as fighters. One of these kidnappings was especially traumatic for him “My brother was kidnapped from our tent in April this year” he says, “After a few days we were given his blood-stained clothes and we were told he had been killed”.

***

The genocide perpetrated by the Sudanese government in the Darfur region started in 2003 with the eruption of a civil war in the area. This was one of several civil wars that started in Sudan as a result of ethnic and political struggles and disputes over resources and land. As part of the Darfur war, president Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorial administration, which has been in power since 1989, employs different methods of direct and indirect violence on the civilian population. The military, aided by the Arab militias – the Janjaweed, have attacked the inhabitants of Darfur with aerial bombings, land raids, burning villages, looting, systematic rape, executions, poisoning water sources and more. Moreover, there are systematic expulsions, uprooting, land occupation and forced demographic changes, while the situation in the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) and refugee camps in Darfur and Chad deteriorates. There is a serious shortage of water, food and medicines and the refugees also suffer from violence, kidnappings and rape.

Although the atrocities in Sudan have been well known for many years, the international community avoids enforcement of international law and is indecisive when it comes to a clear involvement to save the people of Darfur. Nations and companies breach the arms embargo that has been imposed on the area and continue doing business with Khartoum. International armed forces protect oil wells but not the local population, and the international aid agencies sent to Sudan are unable to cope with the situation on the ground. These agencies lack means to protect the survivors of the genocide as well as their own people, and due to pressure from the Sudanese government, they cannot produce the exact mortality figures from the IDP camps. The UN and African Union mission in Darfur that was established in 2007 is ineffective and some even claim it has become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. It is estimated that around 300,000 to half a million of Darfur’s population has perished, and that Two to three million residents have been displaced from their homes.

Against this harsh background of violence, deprivation and loss it is not easy to find consolation or hope. However, Gabriel Stauring’s team tried and is still trying to support youth like Abdel-Hamid, Saleh and Ismail. “One day they sent a message  to our camp” Ismail says, “they wanted us to send the five best football players from our camp to Djabal camp. That’s how 60 players from the 12 camps in Chad got together and met in the Djabal camp's school. First we introduced ourselves and then the i-ACT team told us about the tournament in Sweden. The next day we started the training that, in the end would select the fifteen best players“.

“In Camp Djabal, they have a dirt football pitch with metal goals and no lines”, Says Stauring, “many of the players did not have shoes and have never played with shoes actually. But, they have been playing like this since they were kids, usually with homemade balls that they put together from rags and plastic”. Stauring’s team included the coach Margo Baker who was in charge of the training and selection process. After a month of training the fifteen players finally selected began their long journey to Scandinavia.

“I was the only one who was chosen from my camp” says Ismail. “After the training we were taken to N’Dhamena, Chad’s capital, where we received the documentation needed for the travel, bags and football uniforms. We stayed at a hotel for four days, during which I had a chance to call home and say goodbye to my family. I told them I was going and that I was lucky to get this opportunity”. Logistically, it was not an easy journey. First they had to go through the bureaucracy of attaining approval and documents from the government of Chad. Then they needed to obtain visas to Sweden through the French embassy in Chad and purchase the tickets. Because of the selection process and the bureaucratic procedures “it was all very last minute and very stressful” as Gabriel Stauring recalls. Finally the diplomatic efforts succeeded and the Darfur United players started their journey from one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world, northwards to Sweden, one of its richest and most peaceful ones.

***

“The landing in Sweden was strange” said Ismail. “First of all, the sun almost never set (in June, Östersund has about 20 hours of daylight D.S). Also, people were very nice to us. Unlike in Chad, we were treated as human beings”. “It was an amazing journey but also a challenging experience”, Stauring adds, “The natural environment in Sweden was also something they had never experienced. We landed in Stockholm and took a bus from there to Östersund. From the minute you leave Stockholm, all you see is amazing forests and so much water, so many rivers and lakes. Even though the players were exhausted from the long travel, they could not stop looking out the bus windows.”

The very next day after landing, the Darfur United players participated in their first match against Padania, a team of separatists from northern Italy. Darfur United lost 0:20. “Everything was different” Saleh explains“, In Chad we played barefoot in the sand. When we got to Sweden nothing was the same. We were playing against real players on grass fields, with shoes and football uniforms, but we didn’t get enough practice, we were not well organized, we didn’t have a game plan and we were physically weak. After 30 minutes of playing I wouldn’t have been able to score a goal even if I was standing in front of an empty goal”.

These differences  between the Darfur United players and those of the other teams led to unimpressive results on the field – to say the least. They conceded  61 goals in four games and didn’t score a single goal in return. But despite the unflattering results Ismail is content “As far as I’m concerned we won”, he explains, “We came from the camps, some of us lost family members, and when we came to Sweden we could forget about our sadness for a while. That was a great victory for us”. “I’m proud of what we achieved” adds Saleh “It’s true that  we were not on the same professional level as the other teams but we did make the long journey from the dirt fields of Africa to a real competition against professional players in Europe”.

The matches were only part of their encounter with Europe. “A relatively large group of Darfuris that live in Sweden showed up at the very first practice session. The players were welcomed as celebrities by this group”, says Gabriel Stauring. “The international media was also very interested in the team, so it was wonderful for the players to be able to tell their stories and talk about Darfur and the challenges faced by their families in the refugee camps”. “They treated us very well here” Saleh adds “We felt like we were famous and I experienced the best conditions I ever had in my life: hotels, regular meals and lots of attention. But I missed my family and thought about them a lot. Sometimes, when we would eat at the buffet and five people would eat the amount of food that would feed an entire village, it was hard for me to eat”.

Despite the hardships and loss, the tournament was considered a success. “Darfur United gave them  a sense of united identity and something positive to rally around”, Says Gabriel Stauring, “It is also just plainly for bringing joy. It is hard to put a value on what it means for a young man to represent his people and to step on to a field and play the sport he has loved for as long as he remembers. It's also impossible to measure what it means to boys, girls, women, and men to have their own team to root for. Darfur United gives them hope”. Beyond all this, Stauring claims that the project also has a political aspect, “The little information and news that comes out of Darfur is overwhelmingly negative, so here was something hopeful and positive that could also be used to shine a light on the crisis and the people from this forgotten land”.

***

For most of the Darfur United players the tournament in Sweden was also the beginning of a new life. Six of them decided to escape to Norway and seek asylum during the tournament. They were eventually brought back to Sweden, where they joined seven other players who asked for asylum in Sweden after the tournament. In fact, in their final match Darfur United had only 9 players, one of them being their interpreter. Despite the pressure by the Chadian refugee agency and the UN Refugee Agency, only 2 players returned to Chad at the end of the tournament. “We did not approve or disapprove”, Says Gabriel Stauring, although it is possible i-ACT activities will be hampered by the fact that the players did not return, “We do not consider the refugees to be prisoners or have any different rights than any other person, no matter where they are from. The ones that decided to stay did it the right way, asking for asylum through official channels”.

The authorities in Sweden are quite generous and sympathetic compared to those of other countries. “We were treated very well by immigration authorities”, Ismail says as he recalls his first encounter with at the immigration office in Gävle where he issued his asylum claim. “They checked our documents, gave us a room for one week, interviewed us and let us have legal representation and an interpreter. Then they sent us to different locations while our cases are being processed. I was sent with two other players to Söderhamn where we are waiting for the asylum process to be concluded”. Ismail calls the location where he is staying with his friends “A five-star refugee camp”. The conditions are good; they started studying Swedish and spend most of their time playing football, of course. They even participated in a local marathon and got excellent results.

As their claims are being processed by the Swedish authorities, the Darfur United players are starting to make plans for their new lives. But they don’t forget the ones they left behind. Abdel-Hamid is planning to go to university and one day perhaps return to Sudan and get into politics. “I hope the world intervenes, that there will be peace in Sudan and that life will return to the way it was”, he says and adds with a smile “Maybe then I will be Sudan’s Education minister”.

Saleh dreams of becoming a professional football player. “Now I have strength”, he says, “I need a good coach to give me the tools I need and one day I hope to defeat Barcelona and Inshaalla, even participate in the real world cup”.

***

Meanwhile, in Chad’s refugee camps, i-ACT continues to use football as a tool for rehabilitation, education and social change. In the past year boys and girls in Djabal camp have participated in a football academy set up by i-ACT which also took care of training local coaches, men and women who are all camp dwellers. By 2016 i-ACT plans to establish similar academies in all 12 camps in Chad. In each academy, they say, some two thousand children and youth will be able to practice. The NGO claims that the game has therapeutic qualities and that it's an educational instrument and a basic human right. The academies, they say, are a great tool to achieve these goals.

However, there is a broader and grimmer context. “There are over 300,000 refugees from Darfur in camps on the Chad-Sudan border”, Says Gabriel Stauring, “Violence in Darfur has continued and even increased, so there will continue to be a flow of displaced people. Some make it to the border, but others move to other areas inside of Darfur. Conditions in the camps are deteriorating. Food rations have been cut by more than half, so families are suffering from extreme food insecurity. There have also been cuts in education, medicines, and other medical services”.

Even though the situation in Darfur and the refugee camps in Chad continues to deteriorate, it seems as if the world had lost interest. “The international community has forgotten Darfur”, said Ismail, “the situation there and in the refugee camps in Chad is getting worse and worse. The Sudanese and Chad governments are making life in the camps more difficult and there are reports on murders and kidnapping of children for their recruitment. Despite all this no one hears about the situation in Darfur and Chad, and Omar al-Bahir’s (President of Sudan who was charged for war crimes and crimes against humanity) case is  not being perused at the ICC (International Criminal Court). Ismail claims that the world’s silence sends a clear message: “It gives the government a green light to continue its crimes”, he says, “That’s why my duty is to remind the world and tell my story”.

מאת

David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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