in troubled Democratic Republic of Congo, football academy attracts youngsters ▷

In the volatile east of the DRC, young people have been easy prey for rebel groups looking to recruit new members.
In the volatile east of the DRC, young people have been easy prey for rebel groups looking to recruit new members. Photo: ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP
Source: AFP

In the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, national park authorities hope a football academy will persuade youngsters to play the Beautiful Game instead of a rifle.

Around 50 children between the ages of 10 and 16 have signed up for Virunga’s youth soccer training scheme at a stadium in Rumangabo, a town in North Kivu province that borders a military base and the Virunga National Park. .

It is the oldest national park in Africa, famous for its gorillas and volcanoes.

The monkeys look on intrigued as the kids are put to the test, with exercises, games and tips.

An estimated 120 armed groups roam the volatile east of the DRC. The resurgence in the region of the M23 (March 23 Movement), a mainly Congolese Tutsi group, is a cause for great concern.

After remaining almost inactive for years, the rebels resumed fighting late last year, occupying the strategic town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border in June and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.

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The M23, which the DRC government accuses of funding Rwanda, is operating just six kilometers from Rumangabo and poses a constant threat.

“They are there in the hills, yesterday they looted a health center,” said Gentil Karabuka, a prominent member of the community.

Young people born into a chaotic and violent environment have been easy prey for rebel groups seeking to recruit new members.

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But Dieu Boyongo, the soccer project coordinator, hopes it will be a beneficial alternative for young people.

“We believe that this football school, located in a conflict zone, is a positive occupation for them,” Boyongo said.

Boyongo wants the youth in the project to leave violence and misery behind, replacing the sound of bullets with the roar of the crowd.

Budding footballers are enjoying the project so far.

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“I would like to play for Real (Madrid) or PSG (Paris Saint-Germain),” the 13-year-old Esdras said, before swapping his torn pants for a new soccer jersey.

Gloire, also 13, dreams of having a “career like Cristiano Ronaldo,” the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.

‘Together in peace’

Organizers believe that team sports are also a way to convey a message of peace and make children aware of the park’s conservation efforts.

A young viewer has absorbed this idea. “I want to be a park ranger to protect gorillas and other animals,” said nine-year-old Narcisse.

Emmanuel Bahati Lukoo, head of the southern sector of the park, hopes that others will leave with the same determination.

“When we talk about the east of the country, most people only see the young people who are with the armed rebels,” he told AFP.

“But we don’t want these stories to continue.

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“It is imperative that young people understand that the park is a means for them to develop as people.”

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They can also develop as soccer players, according to one of the coaches supervising the training.

“The ambition is to produce very good young players here in Rumangabo,” Prince Katsuva told AFP.

“We will start teaching them the technical fundamentals and in five or six months we will have a good team.

“We want to show everyone that we can live together in peace.”

Before the opening match, Katsuva told his protégés to pass on a message when they returned to their communities.

He insisted that people should stop poaching and trading charcoal from the park.

The Virunga authorities also employ people displaced by the fighting. They live at the entrance to the headquarters in huts, which, covered with tarps or banana leaves, offer little protection against the cold and rain.

They are employed as day laborers, which guarantees them something to eat, while others have seen their children recruited by the soccer academy.

Source: AFP

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