Saturday, June 3

‘We play to forget what happened’: football’s refuge for girls who fled atrocities | Africa Cup of Nations 2022

LUcy is the team’s captain, so she looks after the ball. Her family’s house is about 10 minutes’ walk from the pitch: it is one of the more established dwellings in Minawao, a permanent structure largely screened behind a high mud wall. She greets her mother, who is sitting outside with an aunt, in Hausa before disappearing inside. Once she has retrieved what she came for, the day’s training can begin. “We play football with our friends to ease our minds,” she says. “That’s why they give girls this ball to play with: to forget about what happened to us.”

This could barely seem further from Yaounde, where the Africa Cup of Nations final will take place on Sunday. We are 500 miles away in Cameroon’s extreme north region, tropical greenery having given way to the patched fringes of the Sahel.

For almost a decade it has been one of the most troubled areas on earth, haunted by unspeakable atrocities. Minawao is a refugee camp that opened in 2013 to provide safety for thousands of Nigerians who have fled, and continue to flee, from the Islamist terror group Boko Haram. The border is only 20 miles away but life is relatively calm here. For those who made it this far, the process of rebuilding can begin.

Access to Minawao is heavily restricted but, with assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Guardian spent a day in the camp with its girls’ football team. Twenty players, aged between 15 and 19, train five times a week on a dry, flat area of ​​ground in front of the settlement’s youth centre. The team was formed to ensure girls could play despite a male-dominated environment and its sessions are overseen by Modu, a stern but affectionate 35-year-old who coached a school side in his village before the terrorists forced him to join Minawao’s first influx of arrivals. He leads warm-ups and then, when everybody has loosened, begins a series of passing drills. “If a girl wants to play, she only has to come to me and she’ll be training with us the next day,” he says.

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Football has become part of life’s fabric for these players. It is a source of pride and certainty when, here of all places, there is little of the latter. Occasionally Modu can take the team to play friendlies outside the camp; recently they traveled 15 miles to Mokolo to face opponents from other nearby communities. “We win most of the time,” Lucy says matter-of-factly. “We won a cup and shared the prizes,” adds her vice-captain, Fayiza. “I will never forget that day in my life.”

Each of Minawao’s 69,000 inhabitants has lived their own version of a horrifying shared history. Lucy was only nine when her village in Borno state, Kunde, was raided by Boko Haram.

“They arrived and started killing people,” she says. “We hid in a cave at night and it was impossible to sleep. They were holding guns and we were so afraid of them. I lost my uncle and many other people died. We had to run.”

Vice-captain Fayiza (right) passes the ball towards her fellow players
Vice-captain Fayiza (right) passes the ball towards her fellow players. Photograph: Moise Amedje/UNHCR

Fayiza, too, experienced things nobody should have to endure. “We saw people in our village running and some were falling down, the attackers were shooting them,” she says. “We ran away and, after they had finished fighting, we went back. After about a month they returned, killing men but not women. The women were saying: ‘How can we live a life without men, who go to their jobs and provide for the family?’ We left again and they followed, and it went on for about a year like this. Then the people from UNHCR met us, took our names and drove us to Minawao.”

The camp’s population continues to swell. Boko Haram remain active in Nigeria and there have been attacks in the far north of Cameroon in the past year. Refugees are repatriated when it is deemed safe to do so but some people choose to return, finding Minawao’s security and familiarity preferable to the desolated areas they left behind. Resources are under heavy strain in an area where rivers have run dry and vegetation is feeling the effects of pressure on the terrain.

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“We have a problem with livelihood,” says Luka Isaac, who is the refugees’ president and leads their discussions with organizations who are active in the camp. “Only about 25% of people here are economically active. The majority of them were farmers but we need more land from the government. Food supplies arrive every month but if people can work, and stand on their two feet, it will give them resilience.”

People with existing areas of expertise such as the cheery Andrews, who runs a seven-strong bakery operation that produces the camp’s bread in a giant clay oven, are encouraged to resume their careers where possible. In another corner of the camp, women are trained to make and sell ecological charcoal.

Most of the girls’ team are still in school, but Lucy is 18 and starting to make a living by sewing headwear. She hopes to become a doctor – “so that if you are ill you come to me and I’ll treat you” – while Fayiza wants to be a news journalist. Isaac emphasizes that role models of any kind are vital for Minawao’s young women and believes football has a part to play.

“Watching footballers around the world, people want to be like them,” he says. “It makes them want to play. It’s the same if you watch actors in films. These recreational activities keep us awake, give us good aspirations, because you think of the future and not what happened in the past. Everyone has their own star.”

The sentiment is important even if, in practice, a straw poll of the team’s favorite player brings one answer. Sitting around a table in the small, spare library building a stone’s throw from the pitch, the team shout Ahmed Musa’s name in unison. The former Leicester player has deity-like status in Nigeria and, thrillingly, they were able to watch him play last month. Tickets were arranged for them to watch the Super Eagles face Sudan in Garoua, a four-hour drive away, during the Cup of Nations group stage. As their friends in Minawao watched via a satellite link, they posed for a photograph on the pitch. “I never thought I would be able to see these players in my whole life,” Fayiza says. For the players, as well as the accompanying Modu and Isaac, it was a first-ever stadium visit.

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When we meet Nigeria have long since been eliminated from the tournament, but the team are behind Cameroon, who are about to make their ultimately unsuccessful bid for a place in the final. “We cannot forget Nigeria because it’s our country, but we grew up here,” Lucy says.

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Back on the training pitch, they try to re-enact their heroes’ moves. It is tough: Modu’s team wear shirts intended for a boys’ team and most play in slip-on sandals. “Equipment is a problem for us,” Modu says. “We often get injuries because the girls don’t have proper shoes, and sometimes they’ll even draw blood. They often tell me we need more jerseys, more shoes.”

Should those ever arrive, the hope is that future footballers in Minawao will benefit. “These girls are pioneers,” says Moise Amedje, one of UNHCR’s representatives in the region. “They are paving the way for the next generation.” They may not become professional players and they should not have to manage the pain barrier to play at all, but football has given Lucy and her friends a reason to look forward.

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