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Archive - Monday, 31 December 2012
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Worcester basketball players's Libya ordeal
ALEX Owumi comes across as a laid-back, down to earth guy without a care in the world.
SURVIVOR: Alex Owumi
Yet beneath the 28-year-old’s casual exterior lies a harrowing story. One that has changed his life forever and lives with him every day.
One that will, during 2013, be released in a book written by himself in collaboration with Daniel Paisner, who has penned New York Times bestsellers for the likes of Hollywood stars Denzel Washington and Whoopi Goldberg.
For, in 2011, Nigerian-born Owumi found himself caught up in the uprising to overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
WAR-TORN: Fighting devastated Libya
Having gone there to further his basketball career, following a horrible time in Macedonia during which he was racially abused, he played for a team run by Gaddafi. Owumi even became friends with his sons Mutassim and Al-Saadi.
“The book is not going to put me in a situation where I’m saying I’m pro-Gaddafi or pro this because I befriended them,” he said.
“The book really shines a light on my journey but the emotional aspect also of me being locked up in my apartment for 16 days with no food, no water and no lights and basically almost dying of starvation.”
Inadvertently, Owumi had been catapulted into a living hell, barracading himself in his Benghazi flat – because it was too dangerous on the streets when violence erupted – and unable to contact the outside world.
“It’s the type of book you read and the words jump out on the page,” he said.
“I’m telling the story and while you’re reading you can hear the pain in my voice, the tears coming down my eyes, it’s really emotional. I’ve read it four times and every time I read it I shed a tear.
“At the time I was 26 years old and this is something you wouldn’t want a 26-year-old kid to go through.”
He eventually fled Benghazi, along with team-mate Moustapha Niang, in the dead of night by car to a refugee camp at Saloom on the Egyptian border.
There he spent three days living rough before the pair, again under the cover of darkness, decided to make a run for it by giving the checkpoint staff the slip and bribing a bus driver to take them to Cairo.
While on that bus, Owumi received a call on his now-working mobile from his coach in Libya offering him the chance to play for a team called El-Olympi in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city. He said yes, going against the wishes of his family and girlfriend in America, who had been frantically trying to bring him home. As it was, Owumi won the championship with El-Olympi and was named most valuable player to boot.
Yet, on his return to the United States, the enormity of his ordeal finally hit and he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Owumi has learned to live with the events of his past but it still shapes his future.
“What I went through I don’t think will ever leave me, I just have to control it because it was just too much in a short period of time – seeing my family struggle, my girlfriend struggle, seeing myself struggle and transform into this person I never knew I could transform into.
“It’s a day by day struggle, life, you’ve got to take it a day at a time. But, to be honest with you, those memories will never go away.
“It’s like a soldier who’s been through war, it’s always going to be there but you just have to learn to control it.”
His story is both utterly compelling and highly emotional. Nobody can fully understand what he went through in Libya.
But Owumi wants people to be aware. Perhaps it’s part of the healing process, but he wants to share his experiences. As a devout Christian, he believes it offers hope.
“I had to put the story out because it touches anybody who has ever been through something when they thought they couldn’t get out,” he said.
“Within the story my father, who’s been battling cancer for 11 years, goes into a diabetic coma and gets depressed because I didn’t come home and stayed in Egypt and played basketball.
“Within the story a girl and her father stayed across from me in the same apartment building in Libya; she got raped right in front of my eyes by two soldiers. I was this close to actually committing murder and killing one of the soldiers.
“Also, there’s me getting arrested, being in solitary confinement in an Egyptian prison with no windows, pitch black, basically living with rats. I was sleeping in dirty urine water.
“I actually escaped from the Egyptian refugee camp. When I escaped I found out later that if I had got caught I could have done five years in prison. I never really knew that but at the time I was just trying to get home. You could see where I was at mentally.”
He continued: “The most important thing is it bridges a gap between Muslims and Christians. On the road when I left the refugee camp for Alexandria was seven hours. Within those seven hours I met some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met and those were Muslims.
“As Americans we look at Muslims in a negative light and these guys didn’t know me at all, they just knew I was an American guy and they fed me, they told me to pray with them even though I was a Christian. A Christian can’t pray with a Muslim but they saw the pain in my eyes.
“I’m from Nigeria where Muslims and Christians clash [in northern Nigeria] and within the story it’s nothing but the Muslims helping out the Christian boy – feeding me when I had no money in Egypt because I was eating out of trash cans – it was bad.”
Remarkably, Owumi returned to basketball and this summer joined the Wolves. He has linked up with Stan Ocitti and Sherrad Prezzie-Blue, players he already knew and who convinced head coach Paul James to sign him.
Although amazed he can still step onto a court, Owumi feels at home in Worcester.
“To be honest with you, I don’t even know how I’m playing basketball to this day,” he said. “That’s God’s work because I’m not mentally in any shape to be playing basketball.
“It was my family who pushed me back into basketball and they said, ‘Listen, it’s the one thing you love, you’re not going to be playing it forever so while you’re young keep playing it because it brings you happiness’. I really didn’t want to play basketball because I was afraid of being away from my family again.
“Everybody read the story and I think Sherrad sent it to coach and he was, like, this is a great player, you’ve got to get this guy.
“Being here has got me a lot more comfortable. I can say I wake up in the morning and not worry about what’s going on outside of my window.
“I go nights without sleeping, it’s just normal for me now. That’s just the life I have to live now and I’m not mad about it but I have a lot of things to work on mentally.
“But I’ll get there in time so I’m not worried about it.”