BANGUI, Central African Republic: Panting, his red singlet drenched in sweat, he pauses to catch his breath. Ngassima, 18, has taken a few blows in the ring today, he even lost his round but it’s all been worth it in this “fight for peace” in Bangui.
Organizing an amateur boxing competition in PK5, a flashpoint Muslim neighborhood in the capital of the Central African Republic, which has been ravaged by sectarian strife, might seem something of a strange idea.
But Roger Junior Loutomo, president of Central Africa’s boxing federation who came up with the idea and also umpires the fights, sees it differently.
“Not at all, boxing is a symbol of peace!” he said.
“When two boxers fight, they embrace each other afterwards, no matter who is the winner. That’s the message that we want to get across,” he says.
Landlocked Central African Republic descended into chaos in March 2013 after rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka ousted longtime Christian leader Francois Bozize.
The coup triggered a wave of violence between Muslim rebels and Christian “anti-balaka” militias, plunging the former French colony into its worst crisis since independence in 1960.
Each side has committed widespread atrocities against civilians, driving hundreds of thousands to flee and creating a palpable atmosphere of fear.
But for now, all that is put aside as youngsters from both communities take to the ring to do battle with their fists and their wits.
Cries of encouragement, laughter, applause: it is an unusual atmosphere around the ring, where hundreds of boys and young men have been standing for hours to cheer on their friends under a burning sun.
Several meters away, clouds of red dust rise are kicked up as a group of UN peacekeepers pass by in their armored vehicles, alert but also looking a somewhat amused.
Like Muhammad Ali
Martial Ngoko, better known as “Muhammad Ali” is one of today’s favorites: like his idol, he “never loses a match”. And since the second round, he has been the clear winner.
“I dream of boxing like him, and I do box like him,” says Ngoko, who is not shy about comparing himself to the world’s greatest boxing champion.
Raised as a Catholic, the young man said he converted to Islam five years ago during a visit to Pakistan for a boxing tournament out of respect for his idol.
Of the 20 or so fighters taking part in the competition, only two are Muslims from PK5 as the ongoing tensions have prevented most of them from keeping up their training.
In PK5, which covers an area of just a few square kilometers (just over a square mile), youngsters are very keen on boxing and there are no less than four clubs. Football and judo are also very popular.
Despite the tense situation, the boxing competitions have continued — but since December 2013, they have only been held in Christian neighborhoods of the city.
Since the violence began, the district has largely fallen silent, with shops and mosques closed down and even the boxing clubs shuttering their doors for several months. It is a far cry from the once-bustling trading hub of the capital replete with lively bars and colorful stalls packed with goods.
These days, people say they are afraid, with locals preferring to stay holed up at home rather than venturing out onto streets where they could be stoned, kidnapped or killed by armed groups.
A great day
Until recently, there were regular clashes between young Muslim vigilantes and their Christian anti-Balaka rivals, with the two sides facing off in a swathe of no-man’s land that encircles the district.
But after Pope Francis visited the neighborhood late last month, bringing a message of peace and reconciliation and insisting that Christians and Muslims are “brothers”, things have been calmer.
“We have had some respite since Pope Francis visited and we must consolidate the message,” Loutomo says.
Boxer Ngassima, a young Christian teenager who “hasn’t set foot in this place for two years”, came to look for a Muslim friend from his childhood.
“This is a great day,” he says, his eyes shining after finding his friend and embracing him.
Just beside the ring where the boxers are fighting is a large billboard bearing a map of the country and images of people handing over their weapons. “Peace” it reads in French. Although it is nothing to do with the event, the message fits.
At the ringside, several judges sit on plastic chairs watching the action. One of them is Gaspard Kopkapka, a veteran member of Central Africa’s boxing association, which counts several hundred members.
“All we hear is talk of war, and we’ve had enough,” says Kopkapka, who competed in the World Amateur Boxing Championships in Belgrade in the late 1970s.
“We must keep our young people busy. Sport is the best way to cope.”