“FOOTBALL IS ALL I HAVE LEFT”
In October 2005 some 100,000 people died in an earthquake in Kashmir. Thanks to the efforts of FIFA and the football family, among many others, happiness is returning to the lives of those living in the earthquake zone.
The biggest earthquake to hit Kashmir in 100 years killed more than 100,000 people. As part of its successful Goal development programme, FIFA sent a team of experts to the devastated region in a bid to use football to bring hope and happiness back to the local people, especially traumatized youngsters.
One of the worst affected areas was the provincial city of Muzaffarabad (population: 750,000), the epicenter of the quake. It is the home of Safer Giliani, a 15-year-ild schoolboy for whom it has been an awful experience.
On 8 October 2005 a new day had just begun for the eight-member Giliani family in Wadi Naleem near Muzaffarabad when the village was struck by a violent earthquake at 8.50 am local time. Safer escaped the disaster because he was visiting his grandparents in Islamabad, the Pakistan’s capital, at the time, but in one fell swoop he lost his entire family, with whom he had lived in a small clay house.
“We were a family who loved sport,” the boy explains. He now lives with an aunt in Muzaffarabad, and along with 150 other orphans was recently invited by his school, which has been converted to a tent city, to take part in FIFA tournament lasting several weeks. The world governing body helped not only to organize the tournament, but also to build two schools and a sport ground. In addition, FIFA provided food and drink for the youngsters, who thanks to the tournament were able to forget their suffering and the difficulties of daily life for a while. Drinking water, still a major problem in the Kashmir region, proved especially popular.
Before the earthquake, Safer played as a striker for his village team in Wadi Naleem and scored lots of goals. Only one of his team-mates survived the disaster. Safer still appears traumatized, and like many of the victims who survived the earthquake he suffers from memory loss. Occasionally he tells his coaches stories about his parental home and school. When he talks about football, his eyes light up. On the pitch he sometimes looks apathetic, but then suddenly bursts into a sprint, sidesteps a few opponents and shoots for a goal.
On the evening of the first day of the tournament, Safer carefully packs away the kit and boots he has been given by FIFA. He pauses to think for a moment. “I’ve lost everything, football is all I have left,” he tells the coaches.
BRUTALLY HOT AND BITTERLY COLD
Kashmir, for decades riven by violent conflict, had witnesses the deaths of many thousands of people even before the earthquake. Bomb attacks, assassinations in broad daylight – all things that Safer has experienced, things that have shaped and left their mark on him. “But all we want to do is live in peace,” he says.
After the tsunami tragedy in 2004, FIFA launched the Football for Hope movement, whose prime aim is to reconstruct damaged or destroyed football facilities and bring hope and solace to traumatized children and young people through football. To date, FIFA’s relief efforts have reached some 5,000 youngsters and their parents in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and Pakistan.
In Muzaffarabad, too, the children have long known what FIFA is and what it does, especially since the World Cup in Germany. Thanks to the satellite dishes hurriedly erected on apartment blocks, houses and even tents and wooden sheds during the reconstruction phase, the tournament was also watched in the destroyed towns and villages. The people of Muzaffarabad gathered in their hundreds, often around a single old television set, even for matches that kicked off in the early hours.
Some 40 percent of the city’s population still lives in tents or emergency accommodation provided by the United Nations, UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations. The summer months are scorching, as hot as 40° C, and the winter is even less merciful, repeatedly claiming lives as the temperature falls as low as minus 25° C.
Yet probably the biggest problem facing the region is the high level of unemployment. Even those who do have a job usually live from hand to mouth. There is little to buy in any case, as only a few food shops have reopened, but at least there is a plentiful supply of fruit and vegetables in the region. And the only bakery in Muzaffarabad is now selling bread and other baked foods again.
SAFER SMILES AGAIN
Once a week Safer goes shopping for his aunt, who has a walking disability. Most importantly, though, he is going to school again. He finds it difficult to concentrate on lessons, in stark contrast to before, when he was one of the best in his class. Safer often thinks back to his old home and his modest life with his family. The loss is still very painful, almost as much as it was a few days after the earthquake, when he was driven to the edge of the disaster area on the initiative of Turkish aid workers to say his goodbyes to his family and friends. He broke down in tears and it took him hours to recover his composure. A giant pile of rubble was all that was left on his village.
Almost all the 150 schoolchildren who were invited to the tournament lost their friends. The programme gives them a feeling of togetherness and an opportunity to exchange experiences. It does all of them good. To keep the youngsters occupied, the FIFA instructors came up with the original idea of organizing a mini World Cup. Small pitches were drawn on a former campsite along with goals and brightly colored markings around the touchlines. The teams were allowed to choose the World Cup nations they wished to represent. Brazil, who did not exactly shine in the “real” tournament, was the most popular choice among the children, followed by Germany.
The matches were played with great passion. For some of the boys winning were more important than the food after the game, which is saying something in a region where children are still dying of malnutrition. “Our children would be a lot worse off if we didn’t have football,” says a teacher who works for an aid organization and is released by his employer so he can attend the afternoon training sessions.
Safer goes home with a spring in his step that day. His team, France, have won and he scored the winning goal. Tomorrow a new day begins. The FIFA team will be leaving soon, with the hope that their local partners will continue their work and, with the help of football, give the youngsters new courage to face life.
The FIFA delegation know only too well, of course, that what the region needs most of all are new schools, hospitals, bridges and roads. Yet they are convinced they can make a difference and leave a mark here – thanks to football, which is bringing new hope to an entire region.
Everyone goes home in a cheerful mood that evening, not just Safer. He has a smile on his face, which does not happen very often. After starting to walk away, he comes back again, unsure of whether to approach one of the coaches. But then he plucks up the courage and asks if he can take a ball home with him. The man in the FIFA tracksuit nods. Safer smiles, everything is fine again – at least for now.