Nuts meets the pro whose move to Libya left him fighting for his life…
This piece was originally in Nuts Magazine
Pro basketball player Alex Owumi thought he was making a dream move to the riches of the Libyan Basketball League, but he soon found himself caught up in the middle of a bloody civil war. Here’s his remarkable tale of survival…
Hello Alex. Why did you chose to up sticks and play basketball in Libya?
Well this was in 2010 when I was based in Macedonia. It was pretty bad – I used to get a lot of racial abuse and had bottles thrown at me. I told my agent to get me out of there! Two days later I was told Al-Nasr [basketball team] in Libya wanted me. I didn’t even know there was a league over there but the prospect of playing in Africa excited me, as I was born in Nigeria.
Weren’t you worried about Libya’s less than favourable reputation?
I was aware of the connections with terrorist attacks like the Lockerbie bombings, but when I was growing up Muammar Gaddafi was the face of Africa.
So what were your first impressions of living in the country?
It was scary at first – my street was really run down and the lift up to my place didn’t even have a door! But I was given a place on the top floor, and my front door was like a bank vault. When I walked in, I was, like, “Wow!” The place was like the Taj Mahal! I later found out it belonged to Gaddafi himself, and that he actually owned the team I was about to begin playing for…
What was the pressure of playing for a dictator like Gaddafi like?
My teammates were very intimidating. They were athletes under fire, and you could see it in their eyes. The pressure was really on, I’m not saying I would’ve been beaten up but the others might’ve been targeted. Gaddafi’s security had done it before to them. I had to take that all on my shoulder, luckily we went on to win six straight games!
How were you rewarded for good results?
After one game, the team’s president came up to me and handed me an envelope. “This is from our leader,” he said. On top of this I never paid for anything. Not a thing. People saw the recognition I’d received from their leader.
So what can you tell us about the outbreak of war over there?
I was on my roof, just looking over the city. A crowd gathered and suddenly there were gunshots. I lost all feeling in my body, and my heart skipped beats. The sun was out, but as soon as that first shot went off the sun went away and it felt like evil spirits had taken over. All I could see were bodies all over the ground.
What were your worst fears?
I thought the military were going to invade the whole city, taking people from their houses. This did happen in the end. I heard screams from outside my front door so rushed to see what was going on. My next door neighbour was out cold on the floor, and a soldier was beating up the man’s daughter. My first instinct was to take that soldier’s life, but another soldier with an AK-47 forced me back into my apartment.
So from this moment you were trapped in your apartment?
Yes, in Benghazi you used to buy all your food fresh, and I’d given what I had left to my neighbours. But as two days turned to four I became desperate. I did what I had to do to survive; I drank water from the toilets and rainwater. I ate anything that crawled; worms, cockroaches or a dead bird if I was lucky. It was like stuff I’d seen Bear Grylls do, it was all about survival, I did it all to give myself a chance.
Did you think you would die in that apartment?
The air force was dropping bombs two blocks from my apartment, day and night. You could smell death in the air, for sure. I couldn’t sleep; there was never more than five minutes peace between the bombs and gunshots.
So how on earth did you make it out?
I was locked in my apartment for 16 days before I said to myself, “Enough is enough.” Nobody was coming to help me; I had to do it myself. My apartment had no power, so I couldn’t charge my mobile phone; I used to turn it off and on to see if people had tried to contact me. Luckily one day I left it on longer and my friend Mustapha managed to get through. He said we had to get to the team president’s house; he had a plan for us!
What was that plan?
First I had to make it to his house. I got onto the street, there were bodies everywhere, and kids I used to play with running around with guns and machetes. These kids actually carried me through the back streets because I was too weak to walk. It’s unbelievable they risked their own lives to save an American. From there we would go by car to the Egyptian border – about a seven-hour drive.
Did you come under attack?
Gaddafi had actually hired mercenaries from West Africa to kill the rebel soldiers. At the first rebel checkpoint, we were hauled out of the car, our luggage thrown everywhere. Mustapha was kicked to the floor and a gun pointed at his head. I saw the fear in his eyes, they were about to kill him. Again I was ready to go down fighting, if they killed him I was next for sure. Luckily our driver managed to convince them we were just basketball players. For the rest of the journey we had similar issues, it was real scary buying petrol, whilst tanks rolled past. When we reached the border we were taken into a refugee camp, inside Egypt’s biggest prison! We would sleep in the yard next to a place murderers were kept!
So what do you make of your time as Gaddafi’s star player?
If only I knew what turmoil was going to unfold, I’d never have gone over there.