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Has Sierra Leone Turned a Corner?

August 14, 2008 12:09 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
A young Sierra Leone soccer team succeeded internationally but gladly returned home, indicating a shift in the formerly war-stricken West African nation.

Soccer Players Stepping Forward

Sierra Leone, once entrenched in a brutal civil war, could be turning over a new leaf.

A boys’ soccer team finished in second place at a tournament in Sweden, but the silver medals are secondary in importance to the fact that the entire team went home to Sierra Leone.

In the past, athletes from the impoverished West African country traveling abroad for events often fled their teams to avoid going back home. In return, “many Western countries now simply refuse to let them in.”

But Sweden took a chance on Sierra Leone’s young team from Freetown, comprised of underprivileged children, many of whom were civil war orphans. Sweden withdrew its ban on visas for the athletes, allowing the young soccer players to be part of team FC Johansen, the first African team to play in the tournament’s 27 years. 

“It goes to show what Sierra Leone can do when it puts its mind to it. We have managed to stick a feather in the cap for the country,” said Kweku Lisk, the team’s legal advisor.

The outlook now is much different than it was in 2002, when 21 out of 30 Sierra Leonean athletes fled during the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, U.K. But even then, the Games organizers seemed to understand the depth of Sierra Leone’s strife. Games Federation president Mike Fennell said at the time that plans to ban the country from the Games had not been made, in spite of athlete disappearances.

“We are talking about an issue that is broader than sport,” said Fennell.

During the civil war it was common for Sierra Leoneans to trek across the Sahara desert and Morocco, attempting to reach Europe. However, athletes who fled faced grave difficulties, traveling with little money and poor English language skills.

But things have changed. In 2007, Sierra Leone held peaceful elections, and the young, hopeful soccer players could indicate the start of a new era.

Issa Koroma, a 13-year-old player whose parents were killed in the war said, “I didn’t want to disappear, I want to come back here because I like my country and I want to play for the national team.”

Background: Escaping a brutal war

In March 2006, six Commonwealth Games athletes from Sierra Leone who’d been given temporary visas to compete in Australia said they were afraid they would be killed or beaten if they returned home. Women were particularly frightened at the prospect of ritual genital mutilation, a ubiquitous practice during the civil war.

The violence began in 1991 when a retired soldier and journalist named Foday Sankoh led a band of rebels in an attack in western Liberia. Sankoh’s band of rebels, the Revolutionary United Front, had been trained in Libyan insurgent camps and was supported by warlord Charles G. Taylor. The resulting conflict left thousands “homeless, maimed, raped or dead.”

The tide has slowly turned, however, and in August 2007, Sierra Leone held its first election since the end of United Nations peacekeeping efforts in 2005. Voter turnout was huge, “a bookend to a violent era,” said the New York Times.

Reference: Books about boy soldiers


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