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2006 FIFA World Cup

Football helps Harold Chavez, 14, find peace in a Colombia shantytown

© UNICEF Colombia/2006/Linton
Fourteen-year-old footballer Harold Chavez takes time out from a game organized by the Golombiano project at his school.

For the 2006 FIFA World Cup, UNICEF and FIFA are campaigning to ensure a more peaceful world for children. This is a profile of one of Team UNICEF's star players.

By Malcolm Linton

MONTERO, Colombia – In the harsh shadows thrown by two bare bulbs, Harold Chavez, 14, grinds manioc to make meat pasties that his mother will sell in the morning at her roadside stall in the northern Colombian city of Monteria. His home is a one-room shack with a mud floor and a leaky roof made of palm fronds and plastic sheeting in Cantaclara, a sprawling shantytown.

Harold's mother Eredis Chavez arrived here with him and his two sisters 12 years ago after guerrillas drove them off their small farm – a tragic episode of Colombia's decades-old civil war. “We had to leave because they said they were emptying the village,” she remembers. Ms. Chavez hung on for a year after the first warning from the guerrillas, but the farm failed after they killed her animals.

Harold helps prepare food for the stall six nights a week. The family gets up at four in the morning to finish the cooking and get ready for their first customers at five-thirty. At six he walks to school. The business brings in a little under $5 per day, which Ms. Chavez supplements with a small rent she charges on a room she has built beside her home.

Steering clear of danger

In Cantaclara, Harold is away from the fighting that plagues much of Colombia's countryside, but his mother says that he is still in danger. Many boys of his age in the neighbourhood take drugs and join criminal gangs. He risks being accused of spying for the police for failing to join in.

More worrisome still for Ms. Chavez is that Cantaclara is a notorious recruiting ground for paramilitary groups. Every few weeks they come to the neighborhood, offering boys around $150 a month with promises of more in the future.

© UNICEF Colombia/2006/Linton
Harold plays with schoolmates in a pick-up game in his home city of Monteria, Colombia.

“I pray to God that my son doesn’t go down that road,” she says. “When he’s a little older, they could say, ‘Harold, come here, we’ve got a deal for you’. And he could see the situation I’m in and take that path. From one day to the next they can put you in a box and take you away. I’ve seen them do it.”

The boys who join the paramilitaries are often used to guard drug plantations. Few actually get paid. Some make their way home after several years but many others end up dead or in jail. According to some estimates, the paramilitaries recruit around 100 children a year from Cantaclara.

Redemption through football

But Harold may be less at risk than many other boys. He loves playing football and recently joined a project called Golombiano that uses the game to steer children away from delinquency and crime. The project, which is supported by UNICEF, also aims to build self-respect and respect for others.

“Football means Harold doesn’t have time to hang out on the street corners with other boys from the neighbourhood,” says James Ochoa, the Golombiano coordinator in Monteria. “Through football young people have learned how to communicate with each other. They see it as a way to make new friends, to get rid of their frustrations and to do something healthy with their free time.”

As a member of Golombiano, Harold plays one or two matches during weekends and practices three times a week. In a variation designed to teach the players how to keep order on their own, the games have no referee and there are some extra rules to which they agree among themselves – typically each side’s first goal can only count if it is scored by a girl, for example.

Harold’s mother says that before he joined Golombiano he used to talk about his plans to punish the people who drove the family off their land, but today he wants to try and make it as a professional footballer. “If I absorb myself in football and study it I think I could become a player like Ronaldinho,” he says.




UNICEF correspondent Malcolm Linton reports from Colombia on 14-year-old Harold Chavez, who steers clear of violence by playing football.

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