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Football Aims to Help Heal Rwanda's Post-Genocide Divide

Several of the world's top footballers came to Rwanda this week to play a charity match in support of the country's genocide survivors. The VOA correspondent reports from Kigali on the unifying power of sports in a country still healing from the divisive events 15 years ago.

By sunset Monday, Rwanda's Amahoro stadium was packed with more than 20,000 football enthusiasts.

Tutsis, Hutus, the young, and the old cheered on Rwanda's Amavubi Stars as they came out victorious in a charity match against an All-Star team led by Cameroon and Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o.

Proceeds went to the 'One Dollar Campaign,' an organization that builds homes for displaced orphans of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsis.

After the game, a crowd of young Rwandans gathered around all-star player and professional American footballer Dominic Scicluna as he urged the children to harness football to help heal the country's post-genocide divide.

"The players with the best technique in the world are ones that know that football is the vehicle for peace," Scicluna said. "That is why this stadium is called peace. What is the name of the stadium in Rwandee? "Amaharo!" That is right, and Amahoro means peace.

Using football to help unify is a concept that has trickled down from the stadium to the streets. Last October, when Rwanda's National Unity and Reconciliation Commission was tasked with reintegrating genocide perpetrators back into the same community they committed atrocities against, it turned to the beloved sport.

A series of football matches took place during a three-month stretch in various parts of urban Rwanda, including Kigali and Butare, and were each followed by events where the two parties could comfortably converse. And they actually worked, says NURC Project Coordinator Oswald Rutimburana.

"The sports makes the first entry - football - and it helps them come closer," Rutimburana said. "We have seen it working. We have seen people now accepting them, impressing them, talking to them and at least that trust, the first trust is built."

Rutimburana says the Rwanda National Unity and Reconciliation Commission hopes to coordinate several more reconciliatory matches next year.