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UNICEF Promotes Football Over Violence in Somalia - 2002-06-27

The whole world has gone football (soccer) crazy this month and Somalia is no exception. But in war-torn and impoverished Somalia football is more than entertainment. It's also being used to promote peace and health.

Baidoa stadium is packed with cheering fans as football teams from the regions of Gedo and Hiran battle it out on the pitch. It may not be a World Cup match, but for the people of Somalia, the country's World Day of Football Cup is probably even more important. Teams from four regions in southern Somalia - Bay, Bakool, Gedo and Hiran - are taking part in the competition.

Fifteen-year-old Muhamood Abdi Hashi updated us on the action in the match between Gedo and Hiran, saying "Gedo [scored] one goal thirty minutes ago." Hiran scores an equalizing goal in the second half and the two teams go to a penalty shoot out. With five goals to three, Gedo is declared the winner.

The members of the team beam with pride as the golden cup is presented to them. Standing in line to be congratulated, they shake hands affectionately with their opponents and hug them. Not too long ago, when people from Gedo and Hiran met, violence often followed.

After more than a decade of bitter factional fighting, Somalia's trust and loyalty often does not extend beyond their immediate community. Clan membership is the basis of identity and people can be murdered simply for belonging to the wrong sub-clan.

The people of Gedo and Hiran belong to rival Marehan sub-clans and there has often been tension between the two communities. But this inter-regional football match has broken new ground - allowing young men to play against others whom they would be quite suspicious of under normal circumstances.

Gedo's chairman, Mohamed Hussein Bashir, is pleased to have made friends among people he might once have been fighting. He says the people of Baidoa have now become like family to him. "Before we have a gun to fight each other," he said, "They were our enemy and we are their enemy. Now we are not [enemies]. And we are going back to our region to inform the people that we [have people who are like fathers and mothers to us] in Bay region. That's the impact and the importance of this tournament."

These kinds of sentiments are exactly what the sponsors of the tournament, the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, want to hear. The children's agency is using tournaments like the one in Baidoa to reach out to young Somalis. The agency is funding 90 youth sports teams across Somalia, as well as rehabilitating playgrounds and pitches. The goal is to teach them there is more to life than fighting.

This is vital in Somalia, where there are an estimated 10,000 child soldiers. Program officer Lieven Desomer says teenagers who join these militias may learn how to kill but by not being allowed to live normal lives they don't learn things that other children learn. "I think playing [teaches] children to interact with each other," he said. "They learn to deal with competition. They learn how to deal with hefty emotions. In Somalia, small conflicts can end up in people getting killed. And this will [teach] the children about fair play and how to deal with certain things in a much more controlled way than just, you know, going from an emotion into a completely erratic action, by doing something completely wrong."

UNICEF is using the Baidoa tournament for more than recreation. Agency officials are taking advantage of the occasion to persuade Somalis about the importance of immunization. In his remarks to the crowd at the tournament, UNICEF project officer Steven Lauweier gave a blunt message.

"A lot of children born in Somalia today never will have the chance to play football," Mr. Lauweier said. "224 children in 1,000 don't reach the age of five years old. Some of them die of diseases that can easily be prevented by vaccination, which is free of charge and can be gotten at your health post. Therefore we would like to plead to all the parents, please vaccinate your children because every child has a right to play."

The last event in the day's program is a sketch performed by local entertainers, that reminds Somalis about the importance of vaccinations. Since it is extremely hard to get access to information in Somalia - most people cannot afford to buy newspapers or radios - health officials say they have to take advantage of public gatherings like this.

That is fine with the people of Baidoa. Like sports fans the world over, they say they can't wait until next year's tournament.