From killing fields to playing fields

The long-awaited start of criminal proceedings against former leaders of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime marks a momentous step for Cambodia as the country struggles to come to terms with its horrific past. But even as the accused stand trial, hundreds of innocent people are still being killed or maimed by the landmines and unexploded ordnance left over from the decades of guerrilla warfare that followed on from Pol Pot's four-year reign of terror.

An estimated six million live mines are still dotted along the border with Thailand but, in the middle of it all, one organisation is using the country's passion for football to teach children messages that could help keep them alive. "Spirit of Soccer" was one of the first projects to receive funding
from the Football for Hope movement, led by FIFA and streetfootballworld.

Through a specially-designed curriculum called "Mine Risk Education", children get the chance to improve their football skills while at the same time learning serious lessons on how to avoid landmines. Safety messages are delivered alongside technical coaching. Posters, t-shirts and footballs printed with life-saving slogans reinforce the messages away from the playing field.

Like many an organisation within the Football for Hope movement, Spirit of Soccer was inspired by a moment of sheer bleakness - not in the humid forests of Cambodia, but thousands of miles away on the other side of the world.

In the mid-nineties, British aid worker and football coach Scotty Lee was driving convoys of relief aid to frontline villages during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, where he witnessed first-hand the devastating consequences of war on the local civilian population. In 1996, Lee returned to the region to run football coaching sessions on behalf of Arsenal football club. While he was there, a group of children were playing football near Sarajevo airport when one set off a landmine. Three were killed, four were maimed. All were under ten years old.

Lee realised that wherever the location and whatever the risk, children will always want to play football. The tragedy in Sarajevo inspired him to devise a way of using football to teach children simple and effective messages about how to avoid and deal with landmines and ERW (explosive remnants of war). Spirit of Soccer was born, and proved so successful in Bosnia and Kosovo that in 2003, Lee decided to establish the project in Cambodia after hearing about the terrible dangers facing children there. He has also run the programme in the disputed and war-torn Moldovan region of Transnistria.

"We develop relationships with the local ministries for education and sport and the local football associations to train coaches and PE teachers to deliver our messages," says Lee. "These community role models run football activities in their local areas and then spend time at the end of the sessions
passing on life-saving information about landmines, how to avoid them and which areas to keep away from." So far, some 46,000 children from over 238 schools located in heavily-mined communities have received Mine Risk Education from Spirit of Soccer's team of dedicated and courageous coaches.

Huge risks
As a consequence of the Khmer Rouge's campaign to wipe out intellectuals and educated workers, over 70 per cent of Cambodia's population now make their living from subsistence farming. "People take huge risks in farming mined land in order to feed their families," Lee points out.

"Most children are not injured by mines but by explosive remnants of war like grenades or artillery shells, set off as an adult farms the land." As a result, Cambodia suffers from one of the highest physical disability rates in the world, with many victims plunged into economic hardship as a result of their disabilities.

Spirit of Soccer operates in the three most mined provinces in the country, including the infamous "K5 belt", where three million mines were laid by 100,000 forced labourers - many of whom died of exhaustion. Since the organisation began operating, child casualties in these regions have dropped by 50 per cent, according to the Cambodia Mine Victim Information Service.

"I want to be a football player but I cannot play safely in this area because it has lots of mines," says 13-year-old Kluen Tie, one of hundreds of young players taking part in one of Spirit of Soccer's Mine Risk Education tournaments in Battambang province. Kuen, like many other girls and boys, had travelled miles from her village for a day of football and learning. "Today I am very happy with the football activities," she said. "I hope to play football freely without mines in the future."

As long as there are wars, and the deadly remnants that the wars leave behind, the work for Scotty Lee and Spirit of Soccer will never be done. Lee now aims to implement the project in the South East of the country along the border with Vietnam, where weapons dropped as long ago as the 1960s are still killing and injuring young children.

This year, Spirit of Soccer faces its greatest challenge yet. In 2008, Lee visited Iraq, a country where children with a passion for football are growing up in one of the most dangerous places on earth. "In between the violence we were able to bring the sport, and our important training, to some very courageous young players," he says of his visit to Baghdad. "We worked in the heart of the community, but we also took the children to another place for a couple of hours so that they could forget the tragedy around them."

With the help of the Football for Hope movement, Lee hopes to establish a permanent project in northern Iraq this year, and fulfil Spirit of Soccer's pledge to "save lives through the beautiful game."