Panting, his red singlet drenched in sweat, he pauses to catch his breath. Ngassima, 18, has taken a few blows in the ring today, he even lost his round, but it has all been worth it in this “fight for peace” in Bangui.
Organizing an amateur boxing competition in PK5, a flashpoint Muslim neighborhood in the capital of the Central African Republic, which has been ravaged by sectarian strife, might seem something of a strange idea.
However, Roger Junior Loutomo, president of Central Africa’s boxing federation, who came up with the idea and also umpires the fights, sees it differently.
“Not at all, boxing is a symbol of peace!” he said. “When two boxers fight, they embrace each other afterwards, no matter who is the winner. That is the message that we want to get across,” he said.
The landlocked Central African Republic descended into chaos in March 2013, after rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka faction ousted longtime Christian leader Francois Bozize.
The coup triggered a wave of violence between Muslim rebels and Christian “Anti-Balaka” militias, plunging the former French colony into its worst crisis since independence in 1960.
Each side has committed widespread atrocities against civilians, driving hundreds of thousands to flee and creating a palpable atmosphere of fear.
However, for now, all that is put aside as youngsters from both communities take to the ring to do battle with their fists and their wits.
Cries of encouragement, laughter, applause: It is an unusual atmosphere around the ring, where hundreds of boys and young men have been standing for hours to cheer on their friends under a burning sun.
Several meters away, clouds of red dust are kicked up as a group of UN peacekeepers pass by in their armored vehicles, alert, but also looking somewhat amused.
Martial Ngoko, better known as “Muhammad Ali,” is one of today’s favorites: Like his idol, he “never loses a match.” And since the second round, he has been the clear winner.
“I dream of boxing like him, and I do box like him,” said Ngoko, who is not shy about comparing himself to the world’s greatest boxing champion.
Raised as a Catholic, the young man said he converted to Islam five years ago during a visit to Pakistan for a boxing tournament out of respect for his idol.
Of the 20 or so fighters taking part in the competition, only two are Muslims from PK5 as the ongoing tensions have prevented most of them from keeping up their training.
In PK5, which covers an area of just a few square kilometers, youngsters are very keen on boxing and there are no less than four clubs.
Despite the tense situation, the competitions have continued.
Since the violence began, the district has largely fallen silent, with shops and mosques closed down and even the boxing clubs shuttering their doors for several months.
These days, people say they are afraid, with locals preferring to stay holed up at home rather than venturing out onto streets where they could be stoned, kidnapped or killed by armed groups.
Until recently, there were regular clashes between young Muslim vigilantes and their Christian Anti-Balaka rivals, with the two sides facing off in a swathe of no-man’s land that encircles the district.
However, after Pope Francis visited the neighborhood late last month, things have been calmer.
“All we hear is talk of war, and we have had enough,” said Kopkapka, who competed in the World Amateur Boxing Championships in Belgrade in the late 1970s. “We must keep our young people busy. Sport is the best way to cope.”
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