The Virunga soccer school in DRC bets on balls against bullets

With the monkeys as spectators and before the greenery of the Virunga Natural Park in the background, several young people hit a ball with the hope

With the monkeys as spectators and before the greenery of the Virunga Natural Park in the background, several young people hit a ball with the hope of becoming professional soccer players, instead of ending up in one of the militias that have been bleeding the eastern Republic of the country for decades. Democratic of the Congo.

“I would like to play for Real Madrid or PSG,” says 13-year-old Esdras, before swapping his ripped pants for a nice new outfit and starting training.

Esdras is one of fifty boys between the ages of 10 and 16 selected to join the brand new soccer school created by the Virunga National Park, a jewel of nature famous for its mountain gorillas and volcanoes, but infested with armed groups. .

The stadium was built in Rumangabo, a town in North Kivu that is home to the park’s headquarters and a military base.

The area is close to the area of ​​fighting with the rebels of the “March 23 Movement” (M23), a long-standing insurgency that gained strength again late last year, with the support of neighboring Rwanda, according to the government. of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The rebels are less than six kilometers from the school. “They are right there, on those hills, yesterday they looted a health center,” says Gentil Karabuka, a representative of local civil society, fearfully.

Other armed groups are also nearby, some of them established in the region since the Rwandan genocide 28 years ago.

Here, the young, born into chaos and violence, without hope or plans, are easily recruited by armed groups or poachers.

“We believe that this football school, in a conflict zone, is a positive occupation for them,” says Dieu Boyongo, coordinator of the “Virunga Youth Football Training” project.

Boyongo imagines the young recruits becoming professional footballers and traveling the world, far from war. Team sports, he adds, is also a way to spread a message of peace and educate children about park conservation.

– Like Cristiano Ronaldo –

“When you talk about the east of the country, most people only see young people in armed groups, but we don’t want that to continue,” says Emmanuel Bahati Lukoo, head of the park’s southern sector.

“These young people must understand that the park is a means of development for them,” he adds.

“I want to have a career like Cristiano Ronaldo’s,” says 13-year-old Gloire.

Among the spectators is also Narcisse, 9 years old. In her case, she dreams of becoming a “park ranger, to protect gorillas and other animals.”

With its two coaches, twenty balls and its new shirts, the new adventure has only just begun, but the ambition of its promoters is to have good players, explains coach Prince Katsuva.

“We will start with the technical fundamentals and in five or six months, we will have a good team,” he says.

“We want to show everyone that we can live in peace and coexistence,” underlines the coach who, before the opening match, asks the young people to be the link between the park and their communities, convincing them to abandon poaching and trading charcoal with wood from the park.

At the entrance to the park, families, driven from their villages by recent fighting, live in huts made of tarps and banana leaves, exposed to rain and cold.

The park employs “displaced people” as day laborers, and now some have seen their children recruited by the soccer academy.