In C.African Republic football returns to a land torn by war

by Reuters
Friday, 11 April 2014 20:02 GMT

BANGUI, April 11 (Reuters) - Central African Republic's professional football league has relaunched its 2013/14 season, interrupted last year by an eruption of violence between Christians and Muslims.

The mainly Muslim Seleka rebel coalition seized power in the majority Christian nation a year ago. Their abuses - including murder, torture and rape - triggered a violent backlash by Christian militias leading to thousands of deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The 28-club Bangui-based league suspended competition in December, four games into the season, amid an upsurge in the killing that would eventually force most of the capital's Muslim inhabitants to flee.

"It was hard not being able to do our job. It was difficult to survive," said Emmanuel Zoumini, a 23-year-old professional player with the club Alliance Sportive Tempête Mocaf.

"Most of the players were in the camps for the displaced or abroad."

The deployment of around 2,000 French troops and reinforcing of an African Union peacekeeping mission has helped restore a semblance of order to Bangui, though inter-religious killings continue.

Supporters packed a 2,000-seat stadium on Thursday as the leagues second division began a week-long marathon of matches during which each team will play twice daily to make up missed games. First division teams will play next week.

"It's an opportunity for people to get out, to relax. The resumption of the season is very important. It allows us to let off steam," said Arsene Ngako, a 35-year-old supporter of Asset de Gobongo.

For others, the return to the pitch represents much more than a simple distraction from the fear and violence that now permeate their daily lives.

"In the clubs in Central African Republic you have Muslims, Christians and Animists," said Camille Ngbagandimbo, the trainer for the national women's team. "It can contribute to reconciliation between the communities."

(Reporting by Crispin Dembassa-Kette, Writing by Joe Bavier, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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