Battling war wounds with football

They were pulled from their homes, armed with guns and forced to fight against their neighbours. When the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone finally subsided, the reconciliation process needed to begin. But how? Jakob Silas Lund's solution was to harness the positive power of football

HOW DOES A COUNTRY rebuild itself after suffering 50,000 deaths, 2.5 million refugees and the sexual abuse of 250,000 women? In a country that the UN judged to be the least developed in the world in 2008, what can unite people who were once forced into lethal conflict with their neighbours?

Football. That was Jakob Silas Lund’s realisation when he visited the Sierra Leone in 2008 while studying for his master’s in international affairs and human rights at Columbia University in New York. After noticing the passion that Sierra Leone as a nation had for the sport, he established a non-governmental organisation, Play31, to encourage reconciliation through football. The name refers to article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states, “Parties recognise the right of the child to rest and leisure [and] to engage in play and recreational activities.”

Since the NGO was established in 2009, Play31 has organised dozens of football tournaments in Sierra Leone, drawing over 60,000 players. The tournaments for men, women and children also include workshops about human rights and conflict resolution. Local leaders are educated as peace ambassadors who promote these values in the remote and poorly developed rural areas where hate between neighbours still festers, more than a decade after the conflict ended.

Moving beyond the horror
Despite the lingering tensions, Lund says that the desire for reconciliation was clear when he first visited Sierra Leone in 2008 at the invitation of a friend in New York, John Caulker, executive director of the peace-building organisation Fambul Tok.

In Sierra Leone, Lund met Moses ‘Samba’ Kpambu, a man who was born in the jungles of Sierra Leone. At the age of 28, he was forcibly recruited to fight for the rebel forces, the RUF, during the country’s decade-long civil war. He was among tens of thousands men and children who were forced to fight their countrymen and who, when the war ended in 2002, were left to start a new life beside people whose family members they had killed, and women they had raped.

“But I was blown away by their ability to move on an start the process of reconciliation and forgiveness. I had never seen anything like that before. I’ve heard the most horrendous stories. Samba’s is just one. The way he was forced to kill and was nearly killed several times himself – that just blows my mind. But it’s not the worst story I’ve heard. The same day I met Samba, I met a young woman who was gang-raped by 15 rebels. But now, she’s one of many who are actively working to bring the community back together. For her to stand up and be embraced by a community that wants reconciliation was just amazing,” says Lund.


Jakob Silas Lund started Play31 aged only 25 (Photo: Peter Stanners)
Jakob Silas Lund started Play31 aged only 25 (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Friends in high places
Back in New York, Lund drew up the idea for the organisation and, within a few months, he had convinced UN ambassadors to support it. To raise awareness, he hosted the first DiploMatch in 2009: a game between two teams of ambassadors, including the Secretary General himself, Ban Ki-moon.

Lund returned to Sierra Leone the same year with a few thousand dollars to buy equipment for the tournaments. In 2010, Hummel, a Danish sportswear firm, partnered with Play31 and now sponsors the equipment and provides financial support. The NGO quickly gained accolades, including the 2011 Beyond Sport Award – juried by former UK prime minister Tony Blair – the 2012 Join Our Core, awarded by Ben and Jerry’s, a Peace and Sport award in 2013.

“There’s hardly anyone who hasn’t connected with someone else through play, which is why the idea resonated with people. I didn’t have to fight to get people on board and like the idea,” Lund says, sitting outside a Copenhagen café on a balmy summer day.

Lund grew up in a liberal Danish community, and the first books he read recounted the woes of Native American people in the US. Travelling from an early age, he knew the rest of the world wasn’t as fortunate as Scandinavia. As a young man, he joined Amnesty International, stopping strangers on the street and urging them to help the organisation with their time and wallets.

Play31 was an opportunity to put his human-rights studies into action. At first, the organisation hoped to give children the chance to play, but he quickly realised there was an opportunity to use football as a vehicle for social change. The football tournaments turned into football festivals, with dinner and a disco following the sporting day. The impact on the community was immediate. Relatives in distant villages started to visit each other again. Trust grew.

But for the initiative to be sustainable once the organisation left the villages, people needed to stay and keep the message of conflict resolution and human rights in focus. They began educating Peace Ambassadors: high-ranking members of the community who could engage debate and diffuse conflict. Their focus then spread out to empowering women.

“We started the Girls Peace Clubs to educate adolescent girls about women’s rights and life skills. For example, to know they have the right to refuse the offer of sex for better grades at school, which remains a pervasive problem. No issue is as important to tackle as the violation of women’s rights – we realised that many of the problems these communities faced in sustaining peace were linked to the violation of women’s rights. When a girl is raped, it creates problems for her and her family, and creates a rift between the families involved.”

Play31 organises football festivals for men, women and children in rural Sierra Leone. The football matches offer an opportunity for communities to come together and start the process of reconciliation following the decade-long civil war. (Photo: Play31)
Play31 organises football festivals for men, women and children in rural Sierra Leone. The football matches offer an opportunity for communities to come together and start the process of reconciliation following the decade-long civil war. (Photo: Play31)

Local ownership
Play31 Sierra Leone now organises the 20 to 30 football festivals held in the country annually.  The local organisation is staffed by community residents, but the Danish NGO provides support through funding and helps design the programme and curriculum.

“At first, we directly employed the staff in Sierra Leone, but over the years, we’ve helped them develop their own organisation. Their independence is important, because it increases the sense of ownership that communities have to the mission – without it, the process of reconciliation would likely fail to have a lasting impact,” Lund says.

The staff of Play31 Sierra Leone approach communities cautiously, starting out by simply asking if there is a need for what they provide. They then look for around 20 potential Peace Ambassadors – they try to ensure an equal split between men and women, and a fair representation of Muslims and Christians, as well as former fighters and their victims. The human-rights workshops that are held prior to the football festivals can draw a few hundred participants, Lund says.

“There’s not much going on in these villages. Most don’t even have electricity, so it’s exciting when we come along. But you can also tell that the people want to improve their communities and lives. You see these masses of people getting engaged and riled up by the discussions.”

The football festivals are not always successful, however, and Lund has discovered that the tournaments can polarise some communities. He recounts one recent event that had to be cancelled when teams from rival villages came close to fighting. Experiences like these have left him feeling dejected and prepared to shelve the entire project.

“But our partners in Sierrra Leone convinced me that the conflicts actually showed how much the work was needed. That a football match could almost lead to violence demonstrates how much the legacy of the war is still present in people’s minds. So we decided to set up peace accords – documents where the teams agree to treat each other with respect.”

Despite these issues, Lund says he has witnessed the power of the organisation’s strategy. He recalls how one girl was supposed to play opposite a man who had raped her during the war. She told a Peace Ambassador, who reached out to the man. He broke down and said he wanted to meet her and apologise. They met before the match, and she forgave him.

Lund hopes Play31’s success can be brought to northern Uganda, a region which was terrorised by warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army from the 1980s until around 2006.

To provide a lasting impact in the communities Play31 visits, they educate high-standing members to serve as Peace Ambassadors. Their role is to promote the focus and importance of rights, while also serviing to diffuse potential conflicts as they arise. (Photo: Play31)
To provide a lasting impact in the communities Play31 visits, they educate high-standing members to serve as Peace Ambassadors. Their role is to promote the focus and importance of rights, while also serviing to diffuse potential conflicts as they arise. (Photo: Play31)

Lomborg’s no fan
While anecdotes are powerful, Lund says the NGO could do more to measure and document its impact, and he has found a company to help. The organisation is also not universally admired. Last year, Lund participated in ‘The Biggest Loser’, a Danish TV show in which different NGOs competed for funding. One of the panellists was the controversial economist Bjørn Lomborg, who argued that Play31’s impact was limited and, therefore, not worthy of funding.

“I understood his argument because, if you compare our work to vaccination drives, for example, which are literally saving the lives of little children, then it’s hard to say that we deserve funding instead of UNICEF. But it shouldn’t be a comparison. Our work deals with the lives that people are leading, and the kinds of communities they want to create and change, and we couldn’t do that if they weren’t alive. Just vaccinating children isn’t enough.”

Lund says Sierra Leone is still suffering from the same institutional corruption, lack of infrastructure, high unemployment and basic inequality that helped ignite its civil war in the first place. During the rainy season, the roads in rural areas turn to mud, making travel impossible. And even in the dry season, little public transport is available. But he hopes that the human-rights education that Play31 provides will encourage people in Sierra Leone to start making more demands on their leaders, creating change from within.

Last year Lund published Junior Rambo, a biography of Samba’s life as a child soldier. He hopes his story will inform others about the reality of conflict in parts of Africa, as well as stir them into action.

“For us to understand the depth of these conflicts, we need personal stories. I think the portrayal of conflicts in Africa has been overly simplified, as though they’re just savages roaming around killing each other in eternal conflicts. I wanted to show a different side of that. I wanted to show that war is always horrible, but that people don’t cease to be people during the wars. Samba continues to be a father, a husband, a good guy and a son of a bitch. All of these complex personalities persisted throughout the war,” Lund says.

Most 31-year-olds haven’t organised football matches attended by Ban Ki-moon or had Tony Blair hand them awards. But Lund says that anyone could emulate his success, they just need to make an effort.

“Making a book or an organisation come alive is an amazing feeling, but it only happens if you actually try. The hockey player Wayne Gretzky was right when he said you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. I needed help and people who have skills that complement my own. I probably could have done with knowing that earlier. But my revelation has been that if you want to do something, you can still do it without having a record-high IQ or rich parents. I didn’t have any of that. There’s nothing extraordinary about me.”


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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