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South Sudan Tribes Pursue Peace Through Sport

Two wrestlers grapple at the "Wrestling for Peace" tournament at Juba Stadium in South Sudan's capital, April 16, 2016. (J. Patinkin/VOA)

With chests bare and leopard skins tied around their waists, 30 South Sudanese athletes marched into Juba Stadium on Saturday morning to begin a weeklong "Wrestling for Peace" tournament.

Four teams from different tribes are competing for prizes of cattle, as well as national bragging rights. But the tournament is also meant to show that different South Sudanese tribes can live in peace after more than two years of war divided the country along ethnic lines.

Peter Biar Ajak, chief executive of South Sudan Wrestling Entertainment, which organized the event, said South Sudan's leaders had been too slow to end the civil war. He said it was time that ordinary folks did so themselves through sport.

"We felt the people of South Sudan need peace," he said. The tournament is serving as the athletes' way "of bringing peace to South Sudan, a peace at grass-roots level."

Traditional wrestling is hugely popular in South Sudan. Ajak said the last wrestling tournament in Juba began on December 14, 2013, one day before war broke out.

"It was very sad that people came to Juba to promote peace, to promote their culture, to promote peaceful coexistence, and then they were interrupted by conflict," he said. "So this morning, I was very excited that we managed to go ahead to start the tournament ... and that it has happened peacefully and successfully."

'Wrestling for Peace' in South Sudan

In Saturday's match, the Bor Dinka tribe defeated the Mundari after 15 rounds. The two tribes have a history of deadly conflict over pasture and cattle.

Bor Dinka coach Chol Jok said bringing young men of the two tribes together to wrestle can prevent violence.

"When you are wrestling with somebody and you go and dance with him, eat with him, this one will be your friend," the coach said. "And then you sit together and you play everything with him, and then there's no fighting again."

Bor Dinka wrestler Manyok Mapel Lual said he felt happy to wrestle after so long. Since the onset of war, he said, people had faced difficulties, "and when we come to an end, we shall be happy, so we want show to the people that we accepted the peace."