We're game folr peace, say young athletes

The District of Columbia’s Georgetown locale is always full of surprises, with hidden gems like beautifully landscaped parks and elegant sculptures tucked away behind the posh homes. But this week something even more special than these attractions could be found for anyone with an interest in the great, overarching theme of world peace – a lush, green, field hosting a friendly soccer clinic between teenage stars of the sport from India and Pakistan.

Yes, you heard right. For as you entered Jelleff Field at the heart of Georgetown, you would encounter young soccer enthusiasts such as 16-year-old Chinta Anjani Rashmitha from Chennai and Ayeza Waheed from Islamabad, who had come together with their colleagues for two weeks in the US not only to practice their kicking technique but also to play ball over in-depth discussions on bilateral peace and diplomacy.

Speaking to The Hindu Ms Rashmitha said, “Before I came here, I didn’t have a connection with any of the people [I have met during this trip]. Now, using communication skills that I never knew I had, I have built a relationship with the people of Pakistan via sports. We get closer with soccer, share our ideas, some in common, some with differences, and become better citizens.”

Similarly Ms Waheed, who has competed at the national level in her country, said, “It’s a really good opportunity for us, and for our countries. We can see that we’re not really different from each other, and we’re actually the same, except for a few things. But that’s ok because everyone is different in their own way”

The ten-a-side cohort of girls has been picked from across a wide range of regions to represent both countries. On the Indian side they hail from Chennai, Puri, Hyderabad, Raipur, Kolhapur, Mumbai, Ranchi, and Delhi. In Pakistan they have been drawn from Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi.

Commenting on this unique initiative Ann Stock, Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs, at the State Department said, “Sports have the unique ability to break down barriers and peacefully bring people together for greater understanding. Today, young female athletes from India and Pakistan have come together to forge new friendships on and off the soccer field.”

Of course they’re being realistic about the gradual change in attitudes that “sports diplomacy” efforts such as this could impact the high-level political issues between India and Pakistan.

Asked whether their discussions touched upon complex questions such as the Kashmir issue Ms Waheed said they “have not come up much, but I don’t think that’s for us to solve,” adding, “But when we go back we can give people our perspective and [our Indian friends] can tell their people about our perspectives.”

Ms Rashmitha said that it had become clear to her that although 70 per cent of the people from India and Pakistan wanted the two countries to resolve their conflict issues, there were still some who did not. In this context in ministerial-level meetings hard topics such as Kashmir “should not be the starting point, rather it should be things like sports.”

Her compatriots from Pakistan appeared to agree that it was still difficult to resolve deep-rooted questions, “but that doesn’t mean we cannot get past them, for example as we we’re doing here through sport,” Ms Waheed said.

She emphasised that at soccer meets such as this one it was friendship that was the ultimate winner and when there is true warmth between people from the two countries, “those issues don’t matter as much as they did before.”

It’s also been a time of surprising small discoveries about each other. “We have talked about the religion difference, differences in our food habits – we are curious and we’ve learned about these new things about each other,” Ms Waheed said. Conversing with her room-mate from Pakistan, Ms Rashmitha added, “I also had an opportunity to develop my Hindi-speaking skills during this trip, and that was something I never expected!”

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