By Julius Gale
JUBA, Feb. 12 (Xinhua) -- Clad in their respective sporting attire, Wilma Poni and Sara Adeng are holding hands and giggling to each other as they watch a football match between a team from Juba and another from the Southeastern region of Torit.
Poni, 18 comes from Juba while her friend Adeng, 20, hails from the central region of Aweil. These two regions are comprised of several ethnic groups who remain at odds following the eruption of civil war four years ago.
The two girls only came to know each other during the opening ceremony of this year's National Unity Day (NUD), an event which brought some 400 youths from across South Sudan, all less than 20 years of age, to take part in 10 days of sporting activities.
After playing against each other in a volleyball game, the young girls admitted that sports play vital role in bringing peace and harmony among the South Sudanese youth who are fractured along ethnic lines.
"Before, I do not know more about the people of South Sudan. But during the tournament, I have made many friends, known many cultures and people from different states of South Sudan," Poni said.
"We used not to talk to each other freely, but after getting to know one another, we chat normally even if we beat them in the field. They come to our room and we chat," she added.
"I hope one day peace will come to South Sudan. But for it to come we must be together as South Sudanese, put end to our differences, sit together, eat together and we forget tribalism and that is how peace can come," Poni said.
Like Poni, Adeng also believes that sports can help bring unity and peace to South Sudan, if embraced.
"I'm very happy that we have come here to attend the third national unity day. As we got together in the compound we just see ourselves as brothers and sisters. We don't see ourselves as coming from different regions," Adeng said.
"I just see myself like we are in one country - a peaceful country because even if we win or lose, we just leave what happened in the play ground there," Adeng added.
"Every player is happy in this tournament because we gather together and we do things in one place. Sports can bring peace because in football, there is no tribe," said Emmanuel Tobi, 19-year-old footballer from Bentiu, a town in northern south Sudan which has been reduced to rubble during the civil war.
"In football there is nothing called color white or color black? People are one in football because air doesn't have color and that is why it is air put in the ball," Tobi said.
For the past three years running, the South Sudanese government have been brining thousands of youth to Juba to take part in various sporting events as way of promoting peace.
The 2018 event brought together 400 youths from 12 cities across South Sudan where they took part in football, volleyball and athletics for both male and female under the theme 'Sports for Peace and Social Cohesion' .
Deng Deng Hoc, minister of general education and instruction challenged the youth to replicate the spirit of peace they showed during the peace games and asked them to live exemplary lives in their communities.
"We can always be happy if we choose to be happy. So unity is very important. Once we are united there is virtually nothing we cannot achieve anything we put our minds to it we can achieve it. So let us remain united because unity is power," Hoc said.
David Shearer, head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said the event offers the people of South Sudan an opportunity to turn away from violence and instead build their country.
"This sporting event represents an opportunity to bring together from right across the country, youth and future leaders to play and engage and remind ourselves that we are here for a greater purpose, and that is to seek harmony, peace and prosperity in South Sudan," Shearer said.
Pal Paul Puk, a 20-year-old football player from the northern town of Malakal, urged the government to expand the reach of the peace tournaments to other parts of South Sudan so that more youth can benefit.
"Sports can send message of peace and love among South Sudanese because so many people are hoping for peace return in South Sudan and I believe that sports can bring peace because sports has no tribe," Puk, said.
"I feel things should continue like this while the government is also trying to bring peace," he added.
South Sudan descended into civil war in late 2013 and the conflict is now in its fifth year, and it has taken a devastating toll on the people, creating one of the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.
The UN estimates that about 4 million people have been displaced both internally and externally.
A peace deal signed in August 2015 between the rival leaders under UN pressure led to the establishment of a transitional unity government in April, but was shattered by renewed fighting in July 2016.
Latest efforts by the international community trying to pressure the various warring factions to end the conflict are ongoing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.