Fitzpatrick and Hawk See the Horror of War

By Sean Fitzpatrick, Chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy
Our ancient Russian combat helicopter swooped in across the estuary, frighteningly low. You could just pick out a town in the distance, concealed in the haze.

At first glance, everything looked half-built. But on closer inspection, you could see that everything was in fact half-destroyed

sean fitzpatrick
We were skimming over the tiny West African state of Sierra Leone, back in the early 2000s, where war and continual political infighting had left the country devastated.
At first glance, everything looked half-built. But on closer inspection, you could see that everything was in fact half-destroyed. We heard stories of people burned alive in their homes, shallow graves filling every open space, buildings destroyed, children maimed.
The rebels, we were told, came under the cover of night. They ran with their shoes off so as not to make any noise. When they put their boots back on they opened up with machine guns and rockets, blasting, killing, raping, maiming, burning and stealing.
Used as human shields by the rebels, women and children were marched across the bridge over the estuary in view of government guns. When they reached the end, the civilians were devastated by machine-gun fire as the rebels attacked. Over 200 were butchered in minutes. It must have been a hell on earth.
I was sharing this white knuckle helicopter ride and hearing these desperate, appalling accounts of what took place with my fellow Laureus Academy Member skateboard superhero Tony Hawk.
We were there to see the work being conducted in this devastated area by a partnership between Laureus Sport for Good, Olympic Aid and UNICEF which had led to the creation of a programme that aimed to take small steps towards helping people in the country to rebuild their lives through sport and to encourage the thousands of child soldiers, who had fought in the civil war between 1991 and 2002, to return to their homes and normal life.
Over the past two weeks, I couldn’t help thinking back to those memories of Sierra Leone as I watched with horror the events unfolding in Ukraine. After so many years of peace in Europe, it seems bewildering that one nation can take such ruthless, merciless action against another, whatever the perceived disagreements between the two.
The nature of the conflicts, of course, is different, but having talked to many of the local people, and particularly the children in Sierra Leone, you cannot underestimate the horror of war wherever it takes place and the hopelessness with which the population suffers its fate.
These are days of crisis and fear, but we must have faith and, at some point in the future, hope and believe that the nightmare ends and the world stays together to help with the reconstruction of Ukraine. Laureus will do whatever is within its power to help.
Laureus has spent more than 20 years using the power of sport to build bridges between communities and working to end conflict around the world. The events in Ukraine are a tragedy that can only result in pain and suffering for so many, particularly the young for whom Laureus has worked so tirelessly for so many years.  
Our efforts will also focus on helping the countries that have selflessly stepped in to welcome refugees from Ukraine. If there is anything positive, it is that many of the 250 programmes around the world we support already use the power of sport to help ease the challenges faced by refugees and victims.
I am delighted that Laureus is setting up a Sport for Peace Fund to raise money to help alleviate the humanitarian disaster unfolding in and around Ukraine following the Russian invasion.
The Fund will support humanitarian agencies on the ground in Ukraine providing food, emergency water, medicine, hygiene kits to prevent disease, shelter and safe spaces for mothers and children on the move, to help a growingly desperate and vulnerable population.  Further support will be provided to those who have fled the fighting and have made their way to relative safety in neighbouring countries.
The Fund will also allow us in the long term to help people and communities to recover from other natural and man-made disasters in the future, not just in Ukraine.
The Laureus Family is doing what it can to help. Thanks also to Laureus Ambassador Andriy Shevchenko who has set up his ‘Play Your Part’ campaign to raise funds to help his native country. Part of the money raised will be donated to the Laureus Sport for Peace Fund to support its work.
For now, one of the biggest focuses is on helping refugees. We already work to facilitate the integration of refugees into their new communities. We are clearly going to need a lot more of that to tackle the crisis we are facing today.
A percentage of funds raised will be reserved for recovery, rehabilitation and longer-term support, focusing on the provision of trauma-sensitive sports activities for young people in conflict-affected communities and to help cohesion and peaceful dialogue where there are large numbers of refugees.
We have no idea what the ultimate toll will be for deaths and injuries in this terrible war. We can only hope that the final figures are nowhere near the appalling figures from the Sierra Leone conflict, where an estimated 250,000 died in a population of five million.
I still cannot erase from my mind the memories of our visit. I think back to our final destination on that journey: Koidu, a mining town in the Konu district; another 90-minute ride in the bone-shaking helicopter. More than 6,000 rebels came to Koidu and the horrors that took place there cannot be imagined.
When we arrived we talked about sport and played frisbee on a small flat piece of ground. The kids could run around instead of hiding with their mothers in their homes waiting for the soldiers to come.
One of the young adults we talked to, who suffered at the hands of the rebels, now coaches children of ex-rebels. There seemed to me to be an important message here: despite what has happened, there can be healing and forgiveness for the past in the hope of a better future.
In Koidu, I made a valiant attempt to teach the youngsters the Haka and Tony Hawk grabbed hold of the first and only skateboard in Sierra Leone and flipped it down amidst the rubbled veranda of an old school.
For the kids the skateboard was a magic carpet as Tony held hands and spun around with the children. An escape from the grim reality of their existence.
More than 20 years on, we must hope that we can do something similar for another group of children whose lives have been torn apart by the brutality of yet another war. 


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