In the hot and arid landscape of South Sudan, thousands of people gathered to watch the opening ceremonies of the fifth annual Twic Olympics — a sporting competition and festival designed to build bridges between warring Sudanese tribes. Amid the waving banners, dancing and singing, fighting and famine seemed very distant, but South Sudan has been at war for a great part of its history.
“The games were started to bring people from different areas and tribes together in a friendly setting to diffuse the tensions that have caused so much fighting in this area,” said Daniel Dhaal, the Youth Empowerment for Peace Coordinator for Sudan Production Aid, the local aid organization that started the annual event.
Mercy Corps has partnered with the local aid organization Sudan Production Aid to support the fifth annual Twic Olympics. With the assistance of Nike, Mercy Corps has distributed over 2,000 pairs of sports shoes and apparel items to the athletes participating in this year’s games.
Twic County is on the border with northern Sudan, and it has been at war for decades — well before the official civil war with the north began in 1983. Most of the conflict has been with the Arab murahileen (militias) over cattle raiding, but localized inter- and intra-tribal fighting have also been a regular part of life for the South Sudanese people. During the war, Twic County suffered many atrocities by Arabs and then later among the southerners themselves, as tribes attacked one another over scarce resources such as water, grazing land and oil.
This prolonged and debilitating warfare has destroyed the region’s economy, infrastructure and communities, leaving the people with little to fall back on when faced with further traumas and disasters. In 1998, there was a terrible famine in Bahr el-Ghazal province — where Twic is located — that left over 100,000 people dead.
“Since the start of the games five years ago, we have seen a lot of positive impact,” said Dhaal. “There is less fighting between the tribes and people are learning to resolve their differences without resorting to guns and violence.”
At this year’s opening ceremonies over 15,000 people — spectators and participants — have peacefully gathered together in Akoc Thon payam (an administrative sub-district of the county), where the games are being held (the location is annually rotated among the six payams in Twic). Many people had to walk for up to four days, called footing in Sudanese English, to reach Akoc Thon.
Despite the long and tiring walk to Akoc Thon, the attendees seemed to have plenty of energy for the opening. The young athletes marched exuberantly in the opening ceremony, waving flags and playing drums. At the conclusion of the official speeches each competing payam took a turn performing their ceremonial dances wearing traditional dress and carrying spears. The dancing carried on into the night, with everyone - from little kids to the elderly — getting in on the action.
“The games are a chance for the people to have fun and take a break from the stresses of their difficult lives,” commented Akel Wol Makot, the Head Coach for the games. “But they also have a very serious goal to developed and empower our youth, so they can be peaceful and active citizens in the future.”
The Twic Olympics were founded with the purpose of fostering development in South Sudanese youths, many of whom have been traumatized by the war, and helping them to peacefully accept the reintegration of the displaced people from Twic who have gradually been returning to the region after fleeing as refugees. It is also meant to provide a platform kids who were refugees and have returned to Twic for re-integrating into their former communities and forming positive relationships.
“The signing of the Peace Accords between the north and south is a very positive break through for us,” said Dhaal, “But it is also bringing a large number of returning refugees to Twic and that further strains the communities here who will need to help support them. Now, more than ever, the Twic Olympics are critical in supporting the peace process and thousands of returning refugees.”
Despite the problems that loom ahead for South Sudan, the mood of the participants and organizers of the Twic Olympics is optimistic.
“We have high hopes for the future. Now that the Peace Accords have been signed there is feeling that anything is possible,” said Dhaal. “For me, I am hoping that the kids here can go to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and compete. They are talented, and with a few years of peace and international support, I think they could even win a medal.”