Publication: The National
JUBA // The giants danced barefoot in circles, strips of leopard print skirt flapping, before one lunged in to topple his opponent and thump him down on the grass.
There was a wild roar of support from hundreds of supporters crammed into the national football stadium in South Sudan’s capital Juba to cheer on a Wrestling for Peace competition.
In this war-wracked country, with a repeatedly broken peace deal now stalled after the rebel chief failed to return to the capital this week to forge a so-called unity government, the people are getting on with their lives as best they can.
“Enough of war, we are tired,” said policeman Peter Thony, who had joined the crowd watching the week-long tournament, peering through the wire fence around the pitch. “It is good to just enjoy sport.”
South Sudan has suffered more than two years of civil war, with tens of thousands of people killed and more than two million driven from their homes. But if there is one thing that can bring people together, it is wrestling.
“It has taken too long to return to peace, so this is a way of saying normal people want normality,” said tournament organiser Peter Biar Ajak, who hoped the games would bring a divided people together.
Competitors from different tribes are taking part in games backed by the US government aid agency, Usaid.
“Wrestling is a sport that everyone loves, so coming here is hoped to encourage peace, forgiveness and reconciliation,” Mr Ajak said.
Back on the pitch, the winner leapt high into the air, an ostrich feather fluttering from his head and his torso daubed with cattle dung ash for decoration, as women waved umbrellas and ululate their approval.
The loser was led away by his teammates as the next bout was readied.
Wrestling is a popular sport among South Sudan’s dozens of ethnic groups, and has long been a way for young men to test their strength without resorting to bloody violence.
“Wrestling for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation,” read the slogan on a t-shirt handed out at the tournament and worn by one spectator.
Next to him stood a supporter of rebel chief Riek Machar, wearing a t-shirt with the face of the man many hoped would return this week to take up the post of vice-president, the job he was sacked from in 2013, months before war broke out.
“Wrestling is not going to stop the war,” said Philip Jok, nearly seven feet (210 centimetres) tall, with the traditional deep scars cut into his forehead that mark him as being from the Dinka tribe from the eastern town of Bor.
“But getting together like this, well, we can see we don’t have to fight each other.”
Mr Ajak, 32, fled the more than two decades war between north and south Sudan from 1983-2005 as a child, ending up as a refugee in the United States, studying at Harvard, then returning to his homeland as an economist.
South Sudan won its independence from Sudan in 2011 but returned to war in December 2013 after violence triggered by political rivalry escalated into a conflict characterised by brutality that has split the country along old ethnic fissures.
It was not the first time he has run wrestling competitions, but the last one in December 2013 was interrupted by an outbreak of fighting between rival units inside the presidential guard, clashes that then spread across the city and into civil war.
“It was a terrible time,” Mr Ajak said, recalling the ethnic massacres that took place across the capital.
Fighting – which still continues despite the peace deal – also spread to the regional capital, Bor.
“The wrestlers from Bor were all here in Juba to take part, but their families were all back home,” Mr Ajak said, shaking his head at the memory.
The town was razed in the battles.
Now the tournament is being held again for the first time since the war began, a sign, Mr Ajak said, that “there is hope that things will get better again”.
While there is no fighting in Juba, the economy is in ruins with soaring inflation and food prices reaching “record highs”, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
“Alarming reports of starvation, acute malnutrition and catastrophe levels of food insecurity have been reported in areas worst affected by the ongoing violence,” the FAO said.
Mr Machar’s failure to return has left Mr Ajak afraid that the games might once again by stopped by war.
“People were upset. They thought it would all be cancelled,” he said, adding that the top prizes of five cattle, including a bull and three pregnant cows, would be a major draw for competitors.
“The war has to end and life goes on,” he said. “This is a way of saying we want peace.”
* Agence France-Presse