Peacebuilding activities were organized to promote unity during the games.
Earlier this year, with support from JICA, South Sudan held its first national sports event since it gained independence in July 2011. Over an 8-day period, 350 youth athletes from nine cities convened for an event the Government of South Sudan dubbed "National Unity Day."
South Sudan, the world's youngest country, is also one of the least developed and faces the dual challenge of building itself up while establishing sustainable peace. Following its independence, turmoil resurfaced in December 2013, with violence spreading throughout the country. Though a peace agreement was signed in August 2015, the implementation of the agreement is moving slowly compared to the initially set timeframe.
Against this backdrop, the South Sudanese government wanted to show its people that through sports, the country could be united as one regardless of ethnic groups. Fittingly, the overarching theme of the event was "Peace and Unity."
Fastest man in South Sudan
Over the course of the sport event, the 350 athletes competed in football and track and field. Nineteen year old Gatkuoth Janny, who won gold medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter races, returned home from his current residence in Uganda to participate in the national competition.
Gatkuoth Janny receives a medal from Mitsuaki Furukawa, the chief representative of the JICA South Sudan Office.
"South Sudan has been in conflict for a long time, but now peace is back. I came home to share peace and unity," Janny commented after the race.
South Sudan will be participating in the Olympic Games for the first time in Rio de Janeiro this year. Janny may be competing with a South Sudanese flag in Rio, as well as the games in Tokyo in 2020.
Proving peace and unity could be achieved
Ahead of the games, the organizers were concerned that unmaintained and uneven fields would put players at risk of injuring themselves. Luckily, the Japanese contingent deployed in UNMISS and Japanese construction companies building the Freedom Bridge and Water Treatment Plant offered to level the sports fields using their own resources. The State Ministry of Public Infrastructure also worked on preparing the field. Their contributions made it possible for the event to proceed as planned.
There was wide media coverage of the event, which also drew in large crowds of spectators. Taban Awad was among those who came to the national stadium to watch the final of the football match with his four year old son. "My father fought for independence, and I grew up only with my mother around. I want my son to live with me and have a good life. I wish South Sudan will be a peaceful country where people can play sports every day," said Taban.
The final match of the football tournament was between Bentiu and Wau. After Bentiu emerged victorious following a dramatic penalty shootout, the players of the victorious team comforted the Wau players who were in tears. Both teams congratulated each other for the good game and sportsmanship.
Many athletes said they made friends from different states whom they would not have had the chance to otherwise meet. Indeed, over the course of the event, the youth athletes proved that through sports, they can celebrate their ethnic differences and draw on them as a source of enrichment and strength. They demonstrated that peace and unity could be achieved in South Sudan.