JUBA (Reuters) – South Sudanese wrestler Kur Bol Jok strode into the arena, his chest – smeared with ashes and dust – puffed out as he faced his opponent, bracing for the fight.
Wrestling is a hugely popular sport in the world’s youngest nation which has been devastated by five years of civil war. Athletes say it is one of the few outlets where ethnic groups who have fought each other can engage in friendly competition.
“Wrestling brings peace as different people come from different places to meet and create friendship,” Jok told Reuters before the match, a white plastic crucifix around his neck. “Winning brings joy and losing is normal because it is not a real fight.”
Matches draw huge crowds across the country and carried on sporadically during the conflict.
Some wrestlers, from pastoral communities where cows play a critical role in livelihoods and culture, smear their faces and chests with white ash from fires of cow dung. Bright animal print cloth, slashed into ribbons, dangles over their shorts.
Jok, dressed for combat in leopard-print, strained as he grappled with opponent Mar Jalot before flipping him over in the red dust and putting his hand on Jalot’s chest to signify victory. There’s no hard feelings.
“We came here for peace with all the tribes gathered to witness the game,” said Jalot, whose outfit was decorated with cow-print cloth.
The carnival atmosphere, where wrestlers break out in dances to celebrate victories and women chant the names of the victorious athletes, is a welcome respite from the hardships of daily life.
Conflict and corruption have destroyed the oil-producing East African nation. It won independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011 after decades of scorched-earth warfare.
Then civil war broke out two years later, killing an estimated 400,000 people before the warring sides signed a peace deal in 2018. On Saturday, the president and former rebel leader formed a long-delayed unity government.
The civil war forced a third of the population to flee their homes; many have not returned. Last year’s unusually heavy rains brought widespread flooding, and the currency fell off a cliff during the war. More than 5 million people need food aid, according to the United Nations.
Sports is one of the few distractions: in a nation with few roads, little electricity and where most schools don’t function. Most importantly, it unites young people divided by war, said wrestling coordinator Limor Joseph.
“It is … the games that brings them together,” he said.