Basketball legend Bol shoots for Sudan peace

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Former NBA star, Manute Bol (AFP)
JUBA, Sudan (AFP) — Basketball legend Manute Bol has good reason to be angry: in Sudan's north-south civil war, more than 250 family members were killed and his home town was razed to the ground.

Yet he speaks of reconciliation rather than revenge, with plans not only to build schools in his native south Sudan -- but also to make peace with bitter enemies from the still war-torn western region of Darfur.

"My dream is to build schools all across south Sudan, because with education you can live your life, get a job, improve," said Bol, settling his giant seven foot seven inch (231 centimetres) frame beneath the shade of a tree.

"But we must also support the people of Darfur, because they, like us, are suffering the same," added Bol -- the tallest player in America's National Basketball Association (NBA) history along with Romanian Gheorghe Muresan.

Now retired, Bol was an iconic basketball shot-blocker, becoming perhaps Sudan's most famous son.

But while the outside world knew him for his towering performance on court, his focus was the plight of south Sudan, pouring an estimated 3.5 million dollars from NBA earnings to support his home nation.

Oil-rich south Sudan was left in ruins by the 22-year civil war, as rebels battled northern government soldiers and militia forces, many recruited from poverty-stricken Darfur, and who were then actively encouraged to commit atrocities.

Some two million died and four million fled as southerners -- largely Christian or animist, and ethnically black African -- fought the Arab-dominated and Muslim government in Khartoum.

"The Darfuris were the ones to come to fight us. The government gave them weapons, ammunition and money to come and wipe us out," Bol said, in the slow drawl of his adopted home of Kansas in the central United States.

However, even as the north-south war came to a close in 2005, a separate conflict was growing in intensity in Darfur.

Darfuris are Muslim, but rebels took up arms with similar grievances of marginalisation as those in the south had done.

"What happened to us in the south is what is now happening today in Darfur," Bol said, sitting in a dusty compound in the southern Sudanese capital Juba.

Now those fleeing the conflict in Darfur are seeking shelter across the border in south Sudan, many in areas still reeling from the destruction caused by Darfuri soldiers.

Tensions remain high between the northern and southern leaderships -- with clashes last year in flashpoint border areas -- but Bol is trying to bring old enemies together at a local level.

"I've been telling people that the problem is with the government in Khartoum, not with the people," he said.

"I don't care whether they are Christian or Muslim, they can all go to school together."

Many warn of a future increase in Darfuris seeking shelter in the south with the expulsion by Khartoum of more than half the humanitarian aid efforts there, following the issuing of an international arrest warrant for President Omar al-Beshir for alleged crimes against humanity. UN agencies say that more than a million people in Darfur will now be left without food, healthcare and drinking water. If not addressed, many will be forced to move out of Darfur to seek food, shelter and safety.

Bol is backed by the US-based Sudan Sunrise organization, aiming to unite the two sides through their joint involvement in building schools, including in Bol's home town of Turalei.

The group hopes that by encouraging both communities to work together on the building work, and holding ceremonies to formally forgive the destruction of the past, the two sides can live together in peace.

"We believe that grass roots reconciliation is key to the future of peace in Sudan," said Tom Prichard, Sudan Sunrise's director, who helps to fundraise for the 135,000 dollars (107,000 euros) needed for each school.

"We see a moment right now where there is great openness that there hasn't been in the past, and I think we have got to seize on that opportunity to build relations between northerners and southerners."

Part of that work included organising a meeting in Juba University with Darfuri students, asking them to volunteer to support the school rebuilding in south Sudan as a sign of reconciliation.

"Several Darfuri students immediately came forward to volunteer," Prichard added. "The reaction was extraordinary."

Volunteer Rudwan Yaqub Dawod, a 25-year-old student from south Darfur, visited the school site, where building work is expected to begin in late April.

"Before I went, I was frightened, that they would hate me for what my people did in the fighting," said Dawod.

"But I apologised on behalf of all Darfuris, saying that we had not understood, but now we know ourselves what damage it caused, and they accepted me."

As a boy, Bol never went to school, spending his youth as a cattle herder until his talent was spotted -- first in Sudan, then by a US coach.

"When I was young, we only wanted to look after cattle, because they are how we measure our wealth," he said.

Education rates in the grossly underdeveloped south remain desperately low and less than two percent complete primary education, according to UN figures.

But efforts are being made to change that.

"I found out when I went to the United States what education can do, and now everyone wants their kids to go to school," Bol said.

"The children are the future of Sudan -- wherever they are from."


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