Sierra Leone hopes cricket can help heal war wounds

Fri Feb 1, 2013 6:20am EST
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By Nina de Vries

FREETOWN (Reuters) - It has no fence around it or any grass on its pitch but the Kingtom Oval cricket ground represents for many inhabitants of Sierra Leone's capital Freetown a reminder of happier times before the West African country's brutal civil war.

The only cricket ground to have survived the 11-year conflict, which killed some 50,000 people and devastated the impoverished country's infrastructure, the Oval is now the focus of an attempt to revive the sport.

Sierra Leone is one of the few nations in West Africa to play cricket. The game was introduced here by the Royal Artillery in 1898 as the British army battled to subdue an uprising in a turbulent trading outpost of its Empire.

For three decades after independence in 1961, the sport remained popular until civil conflict tore the country apart.

"Back then cricket was played pure British style," said 88-year-old Shubu Leopold, the oldest cricketer in Sierra Leone, remembering the "good old days of cricket" before independence.

"We had our tea breaks and you had such a big crowd going to watch cricket ... Everything was a high standard."

The 1991-2002 civil war made Sierra Leone a watchword for brutality, with the drug-crazed child soldiers of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels chopping off the hands and feet of civilians.

"Blood diamonds" mined illegally in Sierra Leone funded the conflict here and in neighboring Liberia, destabilizing the broader region.   Continued...