July 11th 2013: Coaches Across Continents continues to make headlines around the world. Earlier this year ROBIN PERRIE, a reporter with The Sun, the biggest selling newspaper in the UK, travelled to Uganda with us to see our work with former child soldiers. Here is his story.
TEENAGER Pamela Gitty suffered unimaginable horrors when she was kidnapped by the blood-thirsty warlord Joseph Kony and forced into battle as a child soldier. She was repeatedly raped by the brute’s henchmen and had to patrol barefoot through the bush in northern Uganda firing on government troops with an AK47 – all when she was just 15. But despite the trauma she experienced, Pamela has rebuilt her life thanks to a remarkable link-up between a former Premiership soccer boss and one of Kony’s reformed officers.
Nick Gates, 46, ran a successful sports firm and worked as a business executive at Middlesbrough when they were in the top flight. But the soccer-mad tycoon gave it all up to devote his life to helping the world’s most troubled youngsters – using the power of football. He ploughed £2m of his own money into a charity – Coaches Across Continents – which has now worked with 320,000 kids in 20 countries. They train locals how to be coaches so they in turn can use simple football games to teach younger generations to resolve arguments peacefully, educate them about HIV/Aids and give girls confidence in male-dominated societies. Nick has coached youngsters in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, taught boys how to respect women in India, a country shamed by recent rape cases, and played on dirt pitches with HIV positive slum kids across Africa.
But the most heart-rending stories he has come across are the former child soldiers in Uganda, where Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army committed atrocities for 25 years. The evil Guerrilla leader came to the world’s attention last year when the Kony 2012 video went viral across Facebook and Twitter but he is still at large, despite a $5m bounty on his head.
Nick is one of the many selfless charity workers left to pick up the pieces following the countless acts of savagery his army committed. He works with kids at a school in the remote town of Pader, a gruelling ten-hour drive from the capital of Kampala, the last three of which are on a rutted dirt road. The school is run by Friends of Orphans (FRO), a charity started by Ricky Anywar, himself a former child soldier. Ricky, 38, has helped rehabilitate more than 1,100 child soldiers in his home town and in the past four years has been doing it with the help of Nick and his innovative coaching techniques. Nick said: “Ricky recognised that football was a great way of helping these kids who’d had their childhoods stolen. They had forgotten how to laugh and football was the medicine that could help them.” Ricky added: “This is a sad story but it is also one of hope.”
One of the stars of the programme is Pamela, now 25, who used her time at the school to become a qualified mechanic. She was abducted in 2003 after being forced to watch her parents beaten to death. She then spent the next two years as a child soldier and sex slave, eventually giving birth to a daughter who was fathered by one of Kony’s commanders. She said:
“My parents were beaten by clubs and I witnessed it. I became paralysed. I did not know what was happening. I lost all my senses. Visions of their murder still come to me and it brings me lots of pain. When I was abducted I was terrified that I would be killed like my parents. But if you show fear they will force you to kill someone so you learn courage. I was used as a sex slave. Once you are abducted there is no choice. From that moment the girls cannot say no. I was forced to fight. The young recruits always had to go in front when we were moving through the bush so you had to fire to protect yourself from government troops. I fired the gun a lot but I don’t know if I killed anyone.”
After two years she managed to escape when her unit scattered during an attack by government troops. She struggled to cope with life until she heard about Ricky’s school. She spent a year there where she learned the skills to become a mechanic but one of her favourite lessons was playing football with Nick. Pamela said: “It made me very happy and taught me how to make friends and get along with people again.”
The distance between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Ricky’s school in Pader is about 4,000 miles – but his pupils are all huge Toon fans thanks to Sir Bobby Robson. Thousands of fans donated shirts and scarves in his memory when the former Newcastle and England manager died in 2009. The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation passed them to a number of charities – including Nick’s – to give to kids in Africa. There were so many that they are still being distributed and The Sun took over hundreds of them for Ricky’s pupils when we visited his school. One was Tookema Innocent, 19, who was a child soldier for six months. The shy teenager is quietly spoken and modest – yet he was once forced to stab to death a girl child soldier who had tried to escape. One day he hopes to open his own IT business but for now he is the proud owner of a Newcastle United top. He said: “I am a Chelsea fan but now I know that Bobby Robson was a great man.”
Sir Bobby’s widow Lady Elsie was delighted to hear that the troubled kids were getting so much joy from the shirts and scarves. She said: “Bobby was a big supporter of Coaches Across Continents because he appreciated the power of football to put a smile on people’s faces. He worked all over the world so he knew that football is an international language. These children have very little compared to us in Britain. But what they do have is the same love of the game that Bobby had and he would have been thrilled to know they had gained some pleasure from the shirts and scarves. It proves that his legacy lives on.”
Ricky was determined to help his fellow child soldiers after he finally escaped from Kony’s clutches. He had been abducted as a 14-year-old alongside his older brother Patrick and they were then forced to watch as their parents and three younger sisters were locked inside a mud hut which was set alight. Ricky took The Sun back to the old family home, a stone-built house about a mile from Pader, which is now boarded up. He wept as he stared at the spot where his family were murdered, the overgrown base of the mud hut now the only visible sign left of what had served as the children’s bedroom before the LRA struck. Ricky said:
“They tied them to the pillar in the centre of the hut so there was no escape. My world just collapsed as I looked them in the face. I felt dead inside and the whole world went dark. They locked the door with a padlock and started the fire. The grass roof was so dry that it goes up like petrol. There was a lot of screaming. No-one will die quietly unless it is with a gun.” The brothers were taken into the bush with another 350 local kids at the start of what would be a two-and-a-half-year nightmare for Ricky. He said: “A boy called Joseph tried to escape but he was caught so they used him as part of our indoctrination. One of the commanders told the group: ‘Joseph escaped from us, so we are going to kill Joseph’. But then they said: ‘We are not going to kill him, you are’. We were all lined up and everyone had to cut him with a machete. You had to cut him really hard so the commanders could see you had no fear. Just as it got to me it was stopped because Joseph was in such a mess. When he breathed out blood sprayed from his cuts like water from the pipe. From then on they told everyone that instead of cutting him, you had to walk on him. I was missed though and did not have to hurt him, which was a miracle. After he had died they said to us: ‘If you ever escape, Joseph’s spirit will haunt you and we will catch you, bring you back and kill you’.”
Ricky rose to the equivalent rank of sergeant major and also acted as quartermaster – keeping a check on his unit’s guns and ammo and registering new recruits. At one stage his brother escaped and he then spent three months planning his own escape which he successfully made one night with two friends. But when he returned home he discovered Patrick had been unable to cope with life and had hanged himself from a tree a few yards from where their family had died. A month later Ricky was captured again by the LRA and taken back to the bush, but four days later escaped a second time and this time for good. He moved to another town where he got a job at a gin factory. The owner befriend him and paid for him to go to school and he then got a job in the personnel department of the Ministry of Education and Sports in Kampala. But he felt his true calling was to head back north to help his fellow victims of the war. He said:
“Joseph Kony broke my heart, but he did not break my spirit. I thought that if God helped me to grow to an adult then I needed to help the children. They have wounds in their hearts and minds that need to be washed and cleaned through rehabilitation. I felt the same tears, I saw it first hand. The most difficult thing for a child soldier is to talk openly about what they did because it is very embarrassing and they do not trust anyone. So I became the voice for these voiceless children. Rehab alone is not enough so that is why we started the vocational school. Child soldiers have no education, no skills, they are brought up in ignorance and violence. So they come to our school to learn a skill to generate income. And we teach them that if they go back to their villages we need peace. You don’t resolve conflicts by violence. Most important of all, we give them hope.”
The school opened in 2003 and around 200 former child soldiers and war orphans attend the 12-month course each year. Nick’s football coaching was made part of the curriculum in 2010. He said:
“Without doubt the issue was that the kids had lost their voice. The worst thing as a child soldier is to have a voice in the bush because it gets you noticed and will lead to you being beaten or worse. We get them practising skills named after famous players so it makes it easy for them to remember them. As they do the skill they have to shout out its name. It gives them confidence to talk in a group. We also build team work and leadership using games where one person is captain, they have to a make a decision and others have to listen and follow that decision. The improvement we see is amazing. They learn to interact, to make friends and to laugh again.”
Nick, whose dad Bill played for Middlesbrough and whose uncle is former Ipswich Town ace Eric Gates, could have been a footballer himself. He played for England U18s and was offered a contract by Leeds, Ipswich and Luton. He took the academic route instead and ended up at Harvard University in America where he studied sociology. He then set up a chain of sports shops in the States, just like his dad had done in the North East when he retired from playing, and also ran hundreds of soccer camps. After he left that business he travelled the world, visiting more than 50 countries to research how sport could help poverty-stricken communities. Nick worked as Middlesbrough’s Business of Football executive in the 2003/4 season when future England boss Steve McClaren was manager. After leaving the Boro he travelled again before coming up with the idea for Coaches Across Continents in 2007. He launched it with just one programme the following year in Tanzania. But – with a skeleton staff of just six full-timers and 50 volunteers – he has now run 46 programmes across three continents.
Each one of these uses indestructible footballs, an incredible invention developed by American charity One World Futbol, backed by rock star Sting. The kids play on such rough pitches that normal balls burst easily.
But these balls – made out of the same material as Crocs shoes – are impossible to burst even with a knife and never need pumping up. Nick said: “They are ideal for pitches which are covered in stones and rocks. These communities can barely afford one ball never mind replacing it every time it bursts.”