Goals not guns: in troubled DRC, football academy draws in youth

In war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, national park authorities are hoping a football academy will persuade youngsters to take up the Beautiful Game rather than a rifle.

Around 50 children aged between 10 and 16 have signed up to the Virunga youth football training scheme at a stadium in Rumangabo, a village in North Kivu province which borders a military base and the Virunga National Park.

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

Monkeys look on intrigued as the children are put through their paces, with drills, games and advice.

An estimated 120 armed groups roam the DRC's volatile east. The resurgence in the region of the M23 (the March 23 Movement), a primarily Congolese Tutsi group, is of primary concern.

After lying mostly dormant for years, the rebels resumed fighting late last year, seizing the strategic town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border in June and prompting thousands of people to flee their homes.

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

"They are there in the hills, yesterday they pillaged a health centre," said Gentil Karabuka, a prominent community member.

Young people born in a chaotic and violent environment have proved easy pickings for rebel groups looking to recruit new members.

But Dieu Boyongo, the coordinator of the football project, hopes it will be a beneficial alternative for the youngsters.

"We think that this football school, situated in a conflict zone, is a positive occupation for them," Boyongo said.

Boyongo wants the young people on the project to leave violence and misery far behind them, replacing the sound of bullets with the roar of the crowd.

The budding footballers are enjoying the project so far.

"I would like to play for Real (Madrid) or PSG (Paris Saint-Germain)," said 13-year-old Esdras before swapping his torn trousers for a new football strip.

Gloire, also 13, dreams of having a "career like Cristiano Ronaldo," the five-time Ballon D'Or winner.

- 'Together in peace' -

The organisers believe team sport is also a way to deliver a message about peace, and make the children aware of the park's conservation efforts.

One young spectator has absorbed this idea. "I want to become a park guard, in order to protect the gorillas and other animals," nine-year-old Narcisse said.

Emmanuel Bahati Lukoo, chief of the southern sector of the park, hopes others will leave with the same resolve.

"When we speak of the east of the country most people only see young people who are with the armed rebels," he told AFP.

"But we do not want these stories to continue.

"It is imperative that the young understand the park is a means for them of developing as people."

They can develop as footballers too, according to one of the coaches who oversee training.

"The ambition is to produce very good young players here at Rumangabo," Prince Katsuva told AFP.

"We will begin teaching them the technical fundamentals and in five to six months we will have a good team.

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

Before the inaugural match, Katsuva told his proteges to pass on a message when they return to their communities.

He hammered home that people should stop poaching and trading in charcoal from the park.

The authorities at Virunga also employ people displaced by the fighting. They live at the entrance of the headquarters in huts, which covered in either tarpaulins or banana leaves offer little protection from the cold and rain.

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

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