Former Gadhafi Basketball Player Recalls Escaping Libya

Alex Owumi's dream of playing professional basketball led him to Libya, where he played on Moammar Gadhafi's team. Then the Arab Spring happened, and Owumi had to escape.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to a side of sports we do not often hear about. Now these days in the U.S. and perhaps the U.K., we talk about the ugly side of sports, but we're talking about hooligans who overreact after a game or maybe abusive coaches or poor personal behavior by players. Now, though, we are going to hear the story of an athlete whose love for basketball landed him in the middle of a civil war.

Alex Owumi was playing basketball in Libya for a team owned by the family of Moammar Gadhafi living in Benghazi. But then the rebels advanced and he was trapped. And he witnessed many things that will be difficult to talk about, so please be forewarned. But he did make it out, and he feels it's important to tell the world what he saw. And he is with us now to tell us more. Alex, thanks so much for joining us.

ALEX OWUMI: Good day, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: This week marks three years to the point at which you witnessed a military convoy shooting at hundreds of protesters. Your coach told you to stay at home. Did you have any idea what was going on?

OWUMI: I had no idea what was going on. You know, the protesting wasn't violent. Nobody had weapons. And, you know, I saw a lot of military personnel, some from Libya, some from other parts of the world. And, you know, it was just an unusual scene. And, you know, it was a day that I will never ever forget.

MARTIN: Let's go back a bit and ask why you were there to begin with. You know, you were born in Nigeria, you moved to the U.S. when you were 11 and graduated from Alcorn State in Mississippi. And then you played in France, in Macedonia. Why were you in Libya to begin with? Did you want to play there? Were you recruited to play there? How did that all happen?

OWUMI: Yeah, I actually started out the season, 2010, in Macedonia. You know, I was racially profiled - me and a couple of my teammates - and then it was just a bad playing situation. And I told my sports agent at the time that I wanted to get out of there. And two days later he found me this job in Libya. You know, they contacted him. And, you know, I tell people, as an African man, going to play in Libya wasn't something I looked at as, you know, maybe not doing. At the time, I didn't know Libya even had a professional league. But, you know, they wanted me and I was happy to go play.

MARTIN: From a basketball standpoint. Yeah.

OWUMI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, that was what I was going to ask you - you say you were happy to go play in Libya? I was curious about what you knew about Gadhafi at that point, and about Libya at that point?

OWUMI: Well, two central figures in African nation - Nelson Mandela, Moammar Gadhafi - you know, as a child growing up we heard about the good things these guys did. But as far as Moammar Gadhafi, he helped rebuild a lot of countries in Africa. So I never really paid attention to the bad that he did. But as I got to Libya, I kind of took a liking to those people and fell in love with the people and the city. And that's when I kind of figured out about all the bad things that were going on within the Gadhafi regime.

MARTIN: When you first got to your apartment, your personal living situation was quite nice, right?

OWUMI: Yes. It was probably the best living situation I've lived in as a professional athlete. You know, the apartment belonged to Mutassim Gadhafi, who was basically the leader of the third brigade, which is almost like the biggest army in Africa. You know, so this was a man who was ruthless, but he was a young guy who was willing to give away one of his apartments to the new American athlete that was going to help them win these championships.

And, I mean, the couches were trimmed in gold - this stuff was really expensive. It was literally like almost a million dollar apartment tucked away in a corner of the city in Benghazi. Then I kind of figured out I'm in a situation that's very different from the other situations I've been in. That's when I was kind of nervous. I had a lot of weight on my shoulders, you know, after I saw that.

MARTIN: You weren't the only one. I mean, one of the first things that you write about is just - you know, when people talk about being under pressure here, they're not talking about people beating them.

OWUMI: Yes.

MARTIN: And things of that sort. I mean, you witnessed Libyan players, when they weren't playing well, would literally get beaten and would show up to practice with bruises and cuts. And did you ever talk to them about it? What did they say?

OWUMI: Yeah, I witnessed all of this 'cause when I first got there and I started training with these players, you know, everybody was pretty sad and pretty down and kind of timid and scared to make mistakes. And, you know, as a basketball player, you're supposed to have fun when you're playing it. So they basically told me what was going on. You know, before I got there, I think they lost three games in a row.

And some of the team managers and team security were kind of pushing them against the lockers in the locker room, taking them into these private rooms and kind of beating them. You know, basically the souls were lost in some of these players. And when I saw that, I knew that I had a lot of weight on my shoulders as I was brought in to basically just win. You know, I kind of expressed my frustration telling them that players can't play in this type of environment. And, you know, they told me that nobody is going to touch me. And it was kind of different, it was kind of depressing for me to see that, but I knew I had a job to do, and my job was just to play basketball and win and kind of uplift the team.

MARTIN: And then of course when the chaos started in Benghazi, you saw some really ugly things. And again, this is a point at which I think I need to warn people who may be listening - that this is not an appropriate conversation for all listeners. But there is some really terrible things that witnessed right in your building. I mean, how soon after the events of the uprising there started that chaos really start to reign?

OWUMI: Like I said, there were many protests around the city, a couple of gunshots here within the days leading up to February 17. But February 17 was actually the day that I witnessed - this is real, you know, this is real tough for me to talk about even to this day - February 17, witnessed about 200 people murdered right in front of my own eyes. You know, it kind of felt like a dream, but it was actually reality. At the time I was 26 years old. I don't think any man or any young boy, period, should even witness things like that.

These mercenaries were going all through the city, and they ended up in my building basically looking for the young Libyans who were part of the revolution. And they knocked on my door, and this wasn't a regular knock. You could tell it was the butt of an AK-47 or something, and it was very loud. And I came to the door frightened. And I showed them my American passport and my player card for the team I played for. And these men didn't speak English at all. So, you know, they kind of figured out that I wasn't who they were looking for so they kind of left me alone.

MARTIN: And then some short time later, you heard these strange sounds and you went to investigate - and what did you see? And I apologize because I understand that this is very traumatic for you. But what did you see?

OWUMI: Basically, a couple of minutes later I, you know, opened my door frightened and I saw my neighbor's father lying on the floor, blood leaking from his head. And as I inched out closer, I'm kind of in shock and I hear noises from around the corner. And I just hear - I just hear a little girl crying. And I hear heavy breathing coming from around the corner. And I just basically inch closer and closer, slowly still frightened, hands shaking, and I see this man, basically just had his pants down and he basically was just raping this girl right in front of me. And I think that was probably the worst minute of my life. You know, at that time, my first instinct was to grab this gun and actually murder this man because this girl kind of represented a sister away from home, a niece away from home, and I kind of snapped into something that, as a Christian man, I'm kind of unhappy to say that my only option was to kill him.

MARTIN: What did happen?

OWUMI: I - oh, man...

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

OWUMI: As I proceeded to grab the gun, there was another man who stood in the corner silent, that I couldn't see in my peripheral. He was in my blind side, and as I went to pick up the gun, shoved me with the front of his machine gun into my shoulder. And at that time I thought it was over for me. If I would've saw those two men ever again, even to this day, I don't know what I would do. And that kind of scares me.

MARTIN: Did you ever see the girl again?

OWUMI: No. I never saw her again. And you have to understand how this affects me when I wake up certain days and is she OK? Is her father OK? Are my teammates OK? Things like that. I have to wake up every day thinking about these things.

MARTIN: And apparently, you were there for a couple of weeks after this. And how did you live? I mean, did you have food in your place? I know that in this part of the world, most people, you know, they don't keep a lot of food in their house and people shop every day and they cook every day. And did you have food and water? How did you live?

OWUMI: Yeah. You know, when I would food shop, it was every, you know, it was every week. It was basically just fresh food, fresh fruits, and the little food that I did have, you know, I was kind of banking on this revolution to be over in a couple of days.

So I gave it to my neighbors. I think it was two or three days after, I ran out of everything and I just had to compromise. And, you know, things got worse, man. I went to a place where - I'm not even happy to talk about to this day - you know, I resorted to drinking out of a toilet, eating cockroaches and worms and things like that. I had to do anything I had to do to survive, to be honest with you. I just had to work with what I had. And, you know, my days were long, and they weren't getting better.

MARTIN: How did you finally get out?

OWUMI: You know, I was there for 16 days. I had a cell phone and, you know, for weeks, it wasn't working. So I mistakenly left it on one day and my teammate Mustapha called me, and I told him there's no way I can get out of the war zone I was in. I was stuck in the middle of the city were building were being bombed, people were being murdered. I said there's no way for me to get out. And he said if I can make it to Mr. Ahmed, my teams' president's office, that he would try to get us out.

And I took a risk. I had to will myself to go down these flights of steps. You know, I was so weak. I got down there, and I saw the young Libyans, basically these 10, 11-year-old kids who I used to play soccer with - these kids looked at me like I was like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James - they went from kicking a soccer ball now to holding machine guns and machetes. And, you know, you can imagine, you know, one 10-year-old kid on one arm, another 11-year-old kid on my other arm, holding me up while I'm falling through the city. You know, I had lost 20 pounds. You know, I couldn't even walk, my knees were hurting, my internal organs - I was just weak. And they basically dragged me to this office and - to prepare my escape.

MARTIN: You were able to make it to Egypt. And why didn't you come home?

OWUMI: Well, to be honest with you, the real reason why I didn't come home was I was just too raw. You know, I would look in the mirror, and I couldn't recognize myself. And my coach from Libya - who was Egyptian, whose house I went to in Alexandria - when I arrived on this long journey, he basically told me that he feared for me going home. I didn't understand what he was saying. You know, my family's home, the people I love could take care of me.

But he said, you know, if you would go home the way you look, the way you talk, basically, I probably would have been admitted into some mental hospital, something like that. And he was really kind of scared for me. So he wanted me to stay with him for a little while until I kind of got back to where - almost, almost where I used to be. You know, I will never get back there, but, you know, almost where I used to be. And, you know, he kind of predicted that, you know, basketball might be one of the things that could help me get there. But, you know, my PTSD, it's never really going to leave me.

MARTIN: You decided to write about this. And you were telling us, actually, earlier, that you really didn't want to but - first of all, I'm interested in what convinced you to write it because the writing it had to have been difficult, you had to relive it. But what would you - so I want to ask why you decided to write about it and to speak about it as hard as it is, and what you would most want people to get from hearing your story?

OWUMI: Well, ultimately the lady that basically, you know, convinced me to write this was my mother. And a couple of reasons why she did it because when I actually came home and told her the story about everything, about these young boys who helped me through the city, the driver that drove me almost 12 hours, the bus driver that smuggled me illegally into Egypt, she basically told me who is going to tell their story? Who's going to tell the story of all of the lives that were lost in the Arab Spring and the lives that are still being lost today? So this is basically who this is for and that's why I was inspired to write it.

MARTIN: Alex Owumi is playing basketball for the Worcester Wolves, which is in England. And his book, "Qaddafi's Point Guard," talks about his time in Libya. He was with us from the BBC studios Worcester. Alex, thanks so much for joining us. Thank you for doing this. I know it's hard and it has to be hard. And I'm sure every single time you talk about it, it takes something out of you. So thank you for being willing to speak with us today.

OWUMI: You're welcome. I really appreciate it. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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