Tanzanian and Japanese athletes run for peace with Burundian refugees

News Stories, 13 February 2009

© UNHCR/E.Wolfcarius
Running for Peace: A Burundian refugee takes part in the Ekiden relay race at Mtabila camp.

MTABILA REFUGEE CAMP, Tanzania, February 13 (UNHCR) Juma Ikangaa and Toshihiko Seko used to face off against each other in athletics meetings and road marathons around the world. On Thursday, the former world-class track runners reunited on the red laterite soil of a refugee camp in the heart of Africa and took part in a race to promote peace and oppose sexual violence.

"Last year, I was at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Under the slogan "One World, One Dream," athletes and visitors from all over the world were united around sport. Today, I am here with the same message of peace and team spirit," 51-year-old Ikangaa told the scores of refugees and visitors who joined him in the five-kilometre-long "Ekiden for Peace" race.

The UN refugee agency and its Canadian-based implementing partner, Right to Play, organized the Ekiden the Japanese name for a long-distance relay race around Mtabila Camp, which is home to some 40,000 Burundian refugees who fled their homeland in the 1990s.

An Ekiden race does not require batons or special equipment. It only needs tasuki [sashes] to pass from one runner to the next, so it was seen as an ideal team sport in a refugee camp situation.

More than 160 people took part, including refugees young and old, volunteers from Japan's Waseda University, government officials, aid workers and UNHCR staff, led by Representative Yacoub El Hillo.

Ikangaa and Seko set the pace as relays of runners snaked through the narrow paths that criss-cross the camp in the hills of north-west Tanzania. "Ekiden is a very popular sport in Japan," said Seko, 52, who took part in two Olympics in the 1980s and won the Boston (twice) and London marathons during his running career. "I came to Tanzania to share this traditional team sport with you in order to promote peace and non-violence," he added.

Alphonse Nyanburi, a primary school teacher in the camp, said he had encouraged his pupils to take part. "Sport is important," he said. "It shows a decent life is possible in the camp." This is a sentiment shared by UNHCR, whose internet-based ninemillion.org campaign is aimed at ensuring education and sport opportunities for all refugee children.

A first Ekiden for Peace charity run was held last September at Japan's fabled Mount Fuji with the aim of gaining moral and material support from the Japanese public for refugees worldwide, particularly the Burundians in Tanzania.

Since 2002, UNHCR has assisted the voluntary return of some 357,000 Burundian refugees from camps in Tanzania, including 63,000 last year. In a separate repatriation launched last year for Burundians who fled their country in 1972, the agency has repatriated another 30,000 people. A further 165,000 have submitted citizenship applications, which are now under consideration by the government of Tanzania.

By Eveline Wolfcarius in Mtabila Refugee Camp, Tanzania