Football’s Triumph Over War: How children football games built peace for over 20 years in crisis zones across world

Denmark’s Anders Levinsen has left a senior position at the UN Refugee Agency to travel to conflict zones and build peace through children’s football matches. In 2017, with EU funding, the Open Football Fun School project was launched in Ukraine to help boys and girls from eastern Ukraine adapt to host communities. The project has hosted football festivals for nearly 14,000 children from nine regions, attracting more than a thousand adult volunteers, including psychologists and international experts.

‘They cut off the hostages’ ears, stuck knives into various parts of their bodies and then beat them to death.’ This isn’t the description of a scene from Game of Thrones. Instead, it is the testimony given by a Serbian prisoner of war, Velibor Trivichevich, against ‘El Mudzahid’, a unit of foreign Muslim volunteers. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Velibor worked as a medic in the Bosnian-Serb army during the Bosnian war, 1992 – 1995. On 21st July 1997, he was taken hostage and on that same day, two of his brothers were killed. ‘The blood from their decapitated heads dripped onto my feet’, he tells the court in Sarajevo, 20 years after the event.

Velibor was unaware that 150 km away from the place he was being held hostage and tortured, one of the most serious war crimes in modern European history was taking place, in the city of Srebrenica. In the course of just nine days, between the 13th and 22nd of July, the Bosnian Serbs killed 8, 000 Muslim Bosnian men, the youngest of whom was just 12 years, and the oldest 77.

Over the course of four years, the conflict took the lives of almost 200, 000 people. Another two million were forced to flee from their homes. The Bosnian war’s infamy does not lie in its large-scale military operations, but rather in the cruel and mutual ethnic cleansing which took place. Serbians and Montenergins, Bosnian Muslims and Croats were all targeted by the various belligerents.

Four years after the end of the bloody conflict, a Dane, Andres Levinsen, came to Srebrenica to see if he could reconcile the population, which was still internally hostile. In fact, he was returning because between 1992 and 1993, Andres was the head of a UN programme which was assigned the task of looking into the situation of refugees in Bosnia. He was going back to a place to which he had been warned not to return, in order to battle his PTSD and internal demons – he was going back to break a conflict which had nearly broken him.

Andres invited the local Muslim, Serbian and Croatian children to play football together with him. Children’s laughter against hatred, a ball game versus war – from first glance, this struggle might seem unfairly balanced. However, starting from 1998, these sorts of football matches have taken place in more than twenty countries with military conflicts: Serbia, Kosovo, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan – this lengthy list of dangerous crisis zones around the world could go on and on.

In 2017, with the financial help of the EU, Levinsen’s ‘Open Fun Football Schools’ was started up in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Football Association has set it up in twenty regions of Ukraine: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Zaporizhja, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Donetsk and Luhansk. The project’s aim is to help child refugees from the east of Ukraine to adapt to their new homes. According to the Ukrainian Child Right’s Network’s research, 70% of children arriving from the conflict feel isolated in their host families and at school.

However, in Ukraine the project has turned into something much bigger than just football lessons. The joint work of the Ministry of Education, the Football Association and child rights organisations has created a unique project which is helping to prevent child crime. Based on the project’s success in Ukraine, there are already talks of implementing it in other countries.

Andres Levinsen, founder of ‘Open Fun Football Schools’, talks about his experience of the war and the future of the Ukrainian project.

‘National military psychosis’

During the time of the Bosnian war, I was the head of the UN High Commissioner’s project which focused on the state of refugees in the central and south-eastern parts of the country. In fact, I ended up in Bosnia a little before the start of the war, but I almost didn’t get to experience peace in this country. This was my first experience of living in a war zone. I very quickly noticed the effect war has on people and how it separated them.

It is important to understand that war is a situation in which people fear everyone around them, other than their closest family members and friends. The streets become empty, roadblocks are put up in cities, curfews imposed and curtains drawn shut. I call this state a ‘national military psychosis’. It was for the best, but paradoxical of course, that in this situation we didn’t provide humanitarian help, like water and food, but that instead we initiated communication between people and encouraged them to talk to one another.

Every time we crossed a front line, we had to work to agree on a ceasefire. So, we tried to cross as many front lines as possible and remove as many roadblocks as we could. But obviously this didn’t solve the problem. You have to understand that the war wasn’t going on on the front lines, but behind them, in people’s heads. It was possible to sit idle on the front line for weeks and yet behind them, cruel ethnic cleansing was being perpetrated. Their methods were terrifying: entire settlements were burned to the ground, women were raped, people were disabled and their ears cut off. And this cruelty didn’t abate but grew stronger over time.

After the end of the war, I stopped working for the UN and went back home. I started to develop psychological problems and was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I seemed as if I was physically present with my family in Denmark, but my mind and body was there, in Bosnia. I started to write a book about my memories and experiences, but I still had that yearning to return to the Balkans. I promised my wife that I would go back there to finish my book and then I would never return to Bosnia after that. Well, as you can see that didn’t happen (he laughs). After the first few successful matches, I said to my family in 1998, ‘I love you all a lot, but I can’t live in any other way. Good bye.’ And I went back there again.

At that time, the process of repatriation was just starting in the Balkans, when refugees were returning home. But before these people could go back to living their normal lives, they had to make the vital step of reintegrating back into society.

The Philosophy of Football

Once, when I was in Copenhagen, I was watching children play a football game in the local football school and suddenly I thought: what would happen if a school like that was set up on the front line? Children from either side of the conflict could be invited to take part in the game and they could be mixed up into different teams – they could play for the pleasure of the game, rather than competitively. Adults could be invited to watch and coaches could join in too, as volunteers.

I think that a ball is the best toy in the world. First of all, because football is the most widely known sport on the planet, it is the most inclusive type of game. Secondly, it is very unique from a philosophical point of view. When people play football together, they forget about everything: about what time it is, about the place in which they are playing, their particularities, their age, gender, nationality. They play there and then, and so suddenly lose their sense of belonging to a group – they become impartial. I call this the effect of being present. And so, for me, the project – ‘Open Fun Football Schools’ – is about much more than just playing a game in the best technical way. I thought up a football philosophy for myself and it seems to me, that it is working better than other methods of reconciliation.

For example, in South Africa, after the apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up between 1996 and 1998. The white and black communities had to meet in churches or in courts to talk. The whites had to confess and apologise whereas the blacks had to get over their anger and forgive. In my opinion, the problem with this sort of approach is that it looks to the past and gives rise to unnecessary memories of the conflict.

A better way to tackle the problem exists – to look to the future. A new approach to life and new ways of living together exist there. I’m more interested in this sort of thing. In Bosnia, I was constantly participating in ceasefire talks and I realised then that all these ‘peace talks’ are about who fired the first shot, who encroached upon whose territory, who has the right to the land. They never stopped delving into the past. In these sorts of circumstances, of course it is difficult for people to communicate.

Mission Impossible?

After I finished my work at the UN, I was given the status of being a special witness. I was told that I was never allowed to go back to that region. To go to the first match in Vitez (a city in central Bosnia) I rented my own car and even went as far as disguising myself: I put on tinted sunglasses, a hat (he laughs). I was very nervous whenever I went through checkpoints. When I arrived in the city, I was scared to get out of the car because a lot of locals knew me. I drove right up to the doors of the hotel where the meeting with the other organizers was meant to take place. I was still scared, even though I had to walk just five metres to the entrance.

I can still remember every second of the first game. Those matches at the beginning of the project were very emotional for me. One time, we organised a match in the playground of a school in Srebrenica, where in 1995, there was massacre of Muslims. We were very careful when preparing for this match and it was funded by the EU. In the end, a lot of people came – around 500 Bosnians, Serbs, Croats and others. Among the players, there were 12 kids who had lost their parents in the tragedy. When the teams walked onto the pitch, everyone in the stands stood up and started to applaud. It was a turning point for me. I understood, that my idea could unite people. They could start to greet one another again and do neighbourly, friendly things like exchange mobile numbers.

I know that some people say that adults are not like children and it is difficult to reconcile them. But I’m not exaggerating. We have organised matches not just for children but also carried out co-ordination training for adult volunteers. In Bosnia, I met nearly a hundred coaches, who were ready to help as volunteers. Some of them were on different sides of the front lines and were literally shooting at one another. In the evening, after training was over, they would start talking over vodka (he laughs) and little by little, they found similarities and things to talk about. Some of them even became friends. In the entire time we have been running the training courses, we haven’t had a single incident. I have just returned from South Sudan where I could see similar, positive progress.

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I often meet the kids (now adults) who took part in the first couple of games in Bosnia. So that we could organise these reunions, we started a programme called ‘10 Years Later’. When I asked the Bosnians what they remembered about ‘Open Fun Football Schools’, one of them said: ‘I found out that the Serbs weren’t the pigs we imagined them to be before. I remember how, at first, my parents really didn’t want me to play with them, and how they then changed their minds.’ The thoughts the children had had and the conclusions they had come to were much better than I could have ever hoped for.

But I never doubted my idea. There was a period at the start when I was worried because I couldn’t find an organisation which would support the project. I was turned down by the RedCross, DanChurchAid (a Danish NGO which gives humanitarian support to third world countries) and many other organisations. In the end, I had nothing left to do other than set up my own civilian initiative. That’s how Cross Cultures came about. I turned to the Office of the United Nations High Commission for financial help and because of my previous work there, I was given help. Now we count UEFA, Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the EU among several of our donors.

Too much politics

We started up our programme in Ukraine back in 2010, specifically in Crimea after there were separatist tensions on the peninsular. Unfortunately, we had to stop that programme because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea (although the local residents were very insistent that we didn’t stop running it there.) But we aren’t able to work there because of the position of the Ukrainian government as well as our international donors. That’s the result of politics for you.

I think that the way our programme is run in mainland Ukraine is the most successful example in the history of ‘Open Fun Football Schools.’ In order to get it working here, we worked with the Ukrainian Football Association. We managed to set up five-day long football festivals for almost 14 000 kids. We involved more than a thousand adult coaches as volunteers and trained up almost 800 young boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 18, so that, in the future, they will also be able to become volunteers for the project. We managed to a further 48 000 children involved in leading the teams out into the stadium during the opening ceremony and took them on football tours. They met the players of their regional teams as well as the national team. For a lot of the children, this was always their dream because players of well–known teams are their idols.

Thanks to the amazing work of the Ukrainian Football Association, we were able to join Evgenyi Stolitenko’s separate project to the activities of other national organisations, including to that of the Ministry of Education and the Ukrainian Child Rights Network. These instances of co-operation went far beyond the scope of ‘Open Fun Football Schools’ and created a unique opportunity for schools, sports and the police to interact.

The foundation is currently working on a bill, ‘Justice For Children’. This project us about using sport as a way to fight crime amongst children. In Ukraine, a lot of children are growing up in disadvantaged families or have parents who have left the country to work. Because they have been neglected and left without a proper upbringing, these children start to skip school, commit petty crimes and take drugs. But sport can give them a sense of structure in their lives. After-school football clubs will take up their time. The Ukrainian Football Association is already financing these sorts of clubs in the west of the country. 80, 000 kids participate in them – I hope that this bill will be completed and passed by Ukraine’s parliament. This could become a hugely successful government programme in the fight to tackle child crime. For the police, this bill would become a huge step in the path to creating softer methods of upholding order in society. Internationally, this is known as soft policing.

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I think that Ukrainians have set up a project which could serve as a very positive example for other countries. For instance, in Moldova, 30, 000 children have been left to be raised by their grandmothers. They are being brought up without the daily input of their parents, who have left the country looking for work. Other than Eastern Europe, this model could also be very useful in Africa. For example, it would work well in South Sudan where 72% of children skip school. That’s why at Cross Cultures, we invited the Ukrainians involved in this project to an international presentation of their unique model in which sport is used as a method of protecting children. They have already made their pitch in Georgia, Moldova, Morocco, Jordan and we plan to take it further. I believe that there is a future in this approach.

By Samira Abbasova