Competing with Compassion in South Sudan

February 20, 2014

On Sunday, Dec. 15, South Sudanese troops from opposing tribes ignited what would become a 30-day battle from inside their barracks in the capital city of Juba. The gunfire of a few quickly devolved into a full-scale conflict with more than 10,000 South Sudanese losing their lives to the gun battles waged across the city. Much of the motivation for violence stemmed from long-standing ethnic rivalries.

The Wrestling Roots Foundation was on the ground in South Sudan during the conflict. At the time the conflict began, photographer Ben Lowy and I were meeting with organizers from the South Sudanese Wrestling Entertainment group to work on specifics for an event we were hosting on Dec. 21 in Juba Stadium.

The day before the conflict we had hosted the first half of our two-event tournament in Juba, named ‘Wrestling for Peace.” The event pitted long-rivaled wrestlers from the Central Equatoria states (ethnic Mundari) against wrestlers from the Lakes States (ethnic Dinka Atout). The wrestlers were accompanied by a flock of dancers, drummers, and supporters, both women and men—many of whom rode buses hundreds of miles to witness the competition. The mood was festive and the crowds so large that those who couldn’t get tickets climbed the trees surrounding the stadium to get a better view. 

The wrestling was spectacular, with athletes from both sides showing courage on the field. As you can see from Ben’s photography the wrestlers’ strength and agility is a marvel worthy of respect.

But the real accomplishment of the day came in the simple and clear messaging that Fetzer the WRF and SSWE brought to the fans: Peace before conflict; Forgiveness above hate. While the wrestlers toiled on the field, it was the fans, some of whom we interviewed, who expressed messages of peace. They hoped for more affirmations for their new nation and viewed the wrestling tournament as proof that what made them similar was far more valuable than what divided them.

South Sudan is the youngest country on the planet. Its history of genocide and its rich oil reserves contribute to the nation's tenuous development, and outside forces are often given priority at the expense of inter-tribal reconciliation and understanding.

That struggle for commonality was seen in the wrestling.

Near the end of the tournament a Mundari wrestler went racing back to his fans after earning the takedown against his Dinka opponent. In his excitement he accidently stepped on his downed opponent. The Dinka fans saw this infraction as an insult and began to verbally and visually express their displeasure. The stadium, now filled with more than 8,000 fans from more than a dozen tribes, became tense at the potential breakdown in peace.

But then a conference among coaches and a discussion among wrestlers led to a resolution for forgiveness.

The managers for the Dinka and Mundari teams met in the middle to shake hands and then circled the stadium together, their arms raised high and accepting cheers from the crowd. They were showing their leadership in promoting the ideals for forgiveness as being something their fellow South Sudanese could all accomplish.

The dual ended with the Dinka from Lakes winning the majority of the matches. They’d earned the right to face wrestlers of mixed ethnicity who were traveling in from Jongelei—the most respected and talented wrestlers in South Sudan.

The match would never happen. The next night was gunfire, and that start of a 30-day conflict that would claim the lives of thousands of innocent civilians.

One wrestling tournament can’t prevent civil unrest or take away the complicated feelings of loss and anger some feel after losing their loved ones to armed conflict. But wrestling—and sports—can serve as an example of how to solve differences without violence, and for the South Sudanese it is certain to be part of their country’s rehabilitation. 

For now the Wrestling for Peace event stands as the last public event to have occurred in Juba. It’s been thirty days of conflict, but hope is on the way. A cease-fire was recently signed, and the people of South Sudan are hopeful for reconciliation, communication, love and forgiveness.

So are we.

Tim Foley is a freelance writer and traditional wrestling enthusiast. His work has appeared in several national magazines, including ESPN and Men’s Journal.