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'These kids had literally seen people murdered in the streets in front of them'

Rashid Kadura is making a documentary about the hardcore rugby community in Benghazi, Libya.

SPORT PROVIDES REFUGE for so many of us, a foundation to fall back on in the toughest times, a support network when our lives provide great challenges.

The degree of comfort offered by sport has been pushed to an extreme level in Libya in recent years, however, with fighting having raged since protests against the rule of Colonel Gaddafi during the 2011 Arab Spring led to an uprising and civil war.

More than 30,000 have died in the fighting that has swept Libya ever since.

Mideast Libya A civilian fighter, holding the Libyan flag, stands in front of damaged buildings in Benghazi last month. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Benghazi, the second most populous city in the country, has seen horrific things and continues to be deeply scarred by fighting, but sport has lived on.

Soccer is number one in Libya, but in the midst of war and widespread displacement, rugby has become and continues to be an anchor for hundreds of children and adults in Benghazi.

Rashid Kadura, an American of Libyan descent, is currently in the process of shooting a documentary on this small but hardcore rugby community, with the filming of ‘A Rugby Story’ now half complete, while he is currently raising money to fund the second part.

He has witnessed the formation of the Libya’s first-ever national rugby team, competing in sevens rugby competitions, and tracked the lives of the young men involved.

More than anything, he has seen how important rugby has been in providing a coping mechanism, broadening horizons and giving a face to dehumanised people who have been through unimaginably difficult times.

“Every single person that I’ve met has been affected by the civil war in a profound way,” says Kadura. “It’s not like they had cousins in another city who had been injured or seen something.

“These kids had literally seen, to put it bluntly, people murdered in the streets in front of them. There was a stretch of time in 2014, about three or four months, where you couldn’t leave the house, where there was no electricity, no running water.

DSC02038 U13 players from the Rugby 2018 project with their coaches. Source: Rashid Kadura

“It was just shelling, shooting, urban fighting. Having been to the country a lot of times and lived there and worked there, I’ve seen that people have been really affected by what has happened.

“Schools were closed for a year and a half, businesses stopped, everything stopped.

“The reality is that the only thing these kids had was rugby.”

Kadura grew up in a small town in Indiana. His parents are Benghazi-born, so there was always a deep connection to the city. Though many of them had to get out – to Cyprus, Egypt, Tunisia, Germany, England, Canada, and France – Kadura still has family in Benghazi today.

The 25-year-old first played rugby himself in high school in 2008 – soon falling for the genius of Ronan O’Gara – and got his first taste of rugby in Libya when visiting Benghazi as a 16-year-old.

“I learned about this small group of rugby players in Benghazi that wanted to start a rugby union. They didn’t know what a ruck was, they didn’t know what a maul was, they didn’t know a thing. I was like Michael Jordan! I was 16 at the time and they made me an offer to come back and manage the team.”

Having completed high school, Kadura returned in 2009 to coach and manage the small rugby programme, while also studying at university in Benghazi.

The adventure lasted a year and while the programme was still in its infancy, Kadura takes some pride in the fact that eight players from that group are coaching in the city today.

DSC01919 Muhammad, one of the young players, who sometimes struggles with the pressure of game day. Source: Rashid Kadura

Kadura returned to the States to study at Purdue University, where he kept up rugby, and kept a close eye as Benghazi rugby developed slowly but surely, even after the 2011 Arab Spring and the violence around that time.

“These rugby players and coaches in Benghazi realised they needed to start recruiting kids to grow the sport and that really started in 2014, at the same time as the civil war erupted,” explains Kadura.

“I can say ‘erupted’ because a lot of people died. More than half of the city, to this day, is shut down and there is fighting going on.

“A lot of people left. The people who could get out, got out. But the people who couldn’t are just in one corner of the city.”

In 2016, having paid off his student loans, Kadura decided to pursue his lifelong dream of being a filmmaker. There was only one project in his mind to begin with.

In May of last year, he flew once again to Benghazi and began to re-integrate himself with the rugby community, this time with his camera in tow.

Sponsorship from DHL, Swatch and a Libyan telecommunications company had allowed organisers of the Benghazi rugby project – entitled ‘Rugby 2018’, due to the aim of creating various age-group teams to participate in the African Youth Olympics in 2018 – to upgrade their facilities.

Rugby 2018 acquired equipment and rented 5-a-side soccer pitches for their players to train on, with a focus purely on sevens rugby due to the relative ease at which it can be picked up and practiced.

Mideast Libya Benghazi in 2014, after clashes between the Libyan military and Islamic militias. Source: AP/Press Association Images

More than 800 players have registered to the programme, with 250 of them currently active, while a senior national men’s team was put together last year, although their attempts to take part in an international tournament were scuppered.

Over the course of six months, Kadura wove himself into the fabric of the rugby community and the challenging, traumatised lives of the people involved.

With fighting continuing between Libyan forces and Islamic State group militants in the city and its outskirts, life as a filmmaker was far from straightforward.

“There are checkpoints everywhere in the city,” says Kadura. “It really is like a sloppy martial law. Moving from one point in the city to the next, you’re going to have to go through three different checkpoints and traffic is so bad because everyone is in one spot.

“I have a Libyan passport but, when I open my mouth, they know I’m not from there. As soon as they say, ‘Where are you from?’ that’s it. They pull me over. I’ve been pulled over countless times. One day I was pulled over at least 10 times. There’s no code, it’s just dudes with AK47s and they get you out of the car, looking through everything.

“When they see the camera, they’re asking what I’m doing. Luckily, a lot of people have heard of the rugby programme.

“But once I was taken into internal security, arrested, and in Libya they put you in a room and guys come in, some aggressive. It was scary but you’ve got to keep cool. They took my camera and I was freaking out, because they could just throw it on the ground and it would all be over for me.”

DSC01787 The Libyan national team camp in Cyrene last year, with players from Tripoli and Benghazi. Source: Rashid Kadura

Kadura overcame most of the obstacles, however, and tracked some momentous moments, including the formation of Libya’s first national rugby team – a senior men’s sevens side.

14 players from Benghazi joined with 14 from the capital city Tripoli, overcoming the east/west divide in Libya and meeting in the beautiful ancient Roman city of Cyrene for a training camp, from which a final squad was selected to travel to Morocco last October.

They had intended on playing in an Arab international tournament also involving the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt.

However, the Libyan team were cruelly denied the chance to travel to the competition after their visa application – submitted a long time in advance – failed to come through.

Rather than give up, the squad and management, with Kadura also in the party, made a decision to fly to Tunisia with the money they had raised and played a series of friendlies against club sides there.

The Arab Rugby Federation now has plans to run three tournaments a year, with the next one – an under 19s sevens competition in April in Morocco – providing a fresh opportunity for a Libyan national team.

Kadura will return to Libya for the build-up to that competition and travel with the squad, also covering another tournament in June, with the venue and format of that tournament still to be decided.

He is hopeful that the worldwide rugby community can provide support for ‘A Rugby Story,‘ whether that is by donating towards his travel costs and equipment or by sharing the finished documentary - which is expected be ready for release in early 2018.

DSC03451 The Libyan sevens team [in red] with Mostakbel Sportif Jemmal, the 15s and 7s domestic champions of Tunisia. Source: Rashid Kadura

“There was a guy from England who donated a box of rugby boots for the kids,” says Kadura. “He saw the story and said it was amazing.

“If people want to do something, just reach out. If they enjoy the documentary, hopefully, people can just share it. Sharing the story is a huge part of it, because that’s how you can really reach out.

“People in Ireland are aware of what’s going on in the world. Small donations also help hugely, that pays for tickets and equipment. I’m not going to be pocketing that, just paying those things off.”

With such strong ties to Benghazi, Kadura’s attachment to rugby in Libya won’t end with the completion of his documentary, but he hopes it can have an impact on the predominantly Western audience he is targeting.

Due to schools having been closed for so long in Benghazi, he has seen how the young people involved in Rugby 2018 have learned about the wider world through the sport.

He hopes that his documentary can also have a similar effect for Westerners.

“There’s a negative predisposition towards American people and British people and some of the rest of the world in Libya, and it goes both ways – I’m not going to lie.

“But when you start learning about rugby, you get online and start learning about Ireland, about South Africa, about New Zealand, all these places. You start watching videos of players and videos about rugby.

Source: Rashid Kadura/YouTube

“These players in Benghazi have reached out and made friends through rugby and it has expanded their horizons. They have expanded their horizons and it has taught them how to deal with things.

“School was closed for a year and a half and their only outlet was rugby, and that’s how they learned.

“I looked for different characters who could give a diverse human face to this film. I’m making this film for a Western audience, not just for rugby lovers and people who are interested in the Middle East.

“I want everybody to look at it and think, ‘Wow, these are real people.’”

You can contact Rashid Kadura and make donations for ‘A Rugby Story’ here.

And you can get in touch with the organisers of the Rugby 2018 project on Facebook.

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