Juventus and UNESCO began their stay in Mali with a visit to the TEMEDT center on Saturday, a social reintegration project established in the wake of the conflicts that first began to grip the nation in January 2012.
The country’s crisis – an unprecedented political issue in Mali’s history – commenced when rebel groups began to occupy the north with the intention of spreading Islamic law and liberating Malians from French colonial legacy.
Their tactics involved the displacement and recruitment of children for various tasks associated with combat: staffing checkpoints, conducting foot patrols, guarding prisoners and direct conflict with opposing forces.
Some of the youngsters seized from their families and displaced to Gao, the regional capital and the north’s biggest city, and Timbuktu, a city on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, have been reclaimed and moved down to Bamako, where local authorities and UNESCO are working together to help them build a brighter future by either reuniting them with their parents or placing them with foster families.
Timbuktu was originally pencilled in as a destination for the delegation to visit, but recent attacks and threats against the UN have compromised the security situation.
Both Gao and Timbuktu form the focal point of the TEMEDT center viewed by Juventus Legends president David Trezeguet and UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for External Relations and Public Information Eric Falt in person on Saturday, an initiative funded by Juventus that aims to reintegrate vulnerable children between the ages of 12 and 17 back into civil society.
First opened in 2006, the TEMEDT center provides the venue for a Juventus and UNESCO project involving 50 youngsters, with the number set to be increased to 100 when the second phase is rolled out.
After removing these children from danger and placing them into a safe environment, step two of a five-part plan is to establish the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, for which a total of 300 hours (two hours a day) are dedicated.
Once this is achieved a more technical programme can be followed, enabling the youths to learn a trade for a future career, with carpentry, fashion design and automotive mechanic training among the options.
Sport and culture also have a key part to play in the future and an extended syllabus, comprising of football, basketball and traditional dances, is expected to be implemented come July.
A sneak peek of the local passion for dance was afforded to Trezeguet and Falt when they arrived at the TEMEDT center, with Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, president of TEMEDT project, and Ousmane Halle, Mayor of Timbuktu, leading the greetings.
Joining the crowd were children from local team AS Diamou, who play their football on a pitch adjacent to the center, and they wasted no time in getting their shirts signed and posing for photos with Trezeguet once the introduction had drawn to an end.
But it was the children of the center who formed the main focus of the day, and Trezeguet and Falt took the opportunity to speak to them on a one-to-one basis.
While chatting to the youngsters, it soon became clear that the atrocities witnessed in their tender years have had a profound impact. But whilst the scars of war and conflict may still be present, several expressed their hope that their lives had already begun to turn a corner.
This progress was echoed by Lazare Eloundou, Head of UNESCO’s Mali office, who said: “The difference we’ve witnessed in the children since they first came in is staggering. We are very gentle with them and even after two months with us you can start to note important improvements.”
One child in particular who touched the hearts of the delegation, a 13-year-old girl taken away from her family and recruited by military groups, said she wanted to hear people talk only about “good things” from now on, bringing an end to the hardship that has dominated the country’s news agenda in recent times.
It is this light at the end of the tunnel for innocent victims of conflict that Juventus and UNESCO are striving to achieve, as confirmed by Trezeguet whilst reflecting on the experience.
“Speaking to these children in person was really touching,” he added. “They’ve lived through a delicate situation and now we hope it’s all in the past. They’ve really suffered but you can see they want to grow and put what happened behind them. Hopefully we can keep doing our bit to make a difference.”