BIDI BIDI, Uganda (AP) — The soccer field is littered with sharp stones, but the girls who attack the ball with their bare feet play on.
Here in what has become the world’s largest refugee settlement, youth from South Sudan are drawn to soccer, a rare source of entertainment in an otherwise dreary existence.
In a bid to keep young people busy, the International Rescue Committee and other aid groups are hosting inter-village competitions meant to forge unity among the refugees, most of whom recently fled to Uganda to escape civil war.
“If they were not playing football now, they might be doing other things which could be detrimental in their lives,” said Moses Opio, a Ugandan in charge of community services for the IRC. “Some of them would be playing cards, others would be smoking and others would be planning to do nasty things.”
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Soccer fields can be found across Bidi Bidi settlement and even more are being created, underscoring the importance of sport in a community trying to forget the horrors of war. Many here have lost close relatives since the start in December 2013 of South Sudan’s conflict, which has often been waged along ethnic lines and in which tens of thousands of people have been killed.
Bidi Bidi is now home to over 270,000 refugees, most of them women and children, according to the United Nations refugee agency. They are among nearly one million South Sudanese now sheltering in Uganda, most having arrived in the past year.
Uganda’s government and the U.N. are appealing for $8 billion to deal with what has been called the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.
As thousands of refugee continue to arrive, local authorities and aid workers must constantly improvise to make life as normal as possible.
“The idea of soccer days gave me happiness. I felt like I was going to restart building my passion for soccer,” said Steven Batali, who used to teach mathematics before he fled the border town of Yei to avoid forced conscription into an armed group.
One recent afternoon, young men with rakes and hoes worked to level the site of a new soccer field, saying the land had been a forest not long ago.
A man with a salt-and-pepper beard named Emily Bronte said he was proud of the community’s efforts toward having a standard football field of its own.
“A lot of our young children want to play football to forget what happened in South Sudan,” he said. “In sport you can play and forget everything, and then at night you eat food and sleep.”