Alex (center, in the black T-shirt) with some of his Libyan teammates. All photos courtesy of Alex Owumi
There are a few things to expect when you start playing basketball at an international level: a gruelling training regime, competitive teammates, and maybe some kind of sponsorship deal involving toiletries or luminous drinks. Stuff you generally don’t prepare yourself for, however, is almost starving to death while the army shoots at civilians just outside your apartment, being forced to survive on cockroaches and toilet water and fleeing a country by way of a border occupied by rebel guards.
That’s what happened to Alex Owumi, an American ball player who moved to Benghazi, Libya after being recruited by Al-Nasr, a team owned by the Gaddafi family. Alex arrived at the end of 2010 and enjoyed a few months as the team’s point guard, before the revolution broke out in February of 2011 and he found himself trapped in his apartment—a lavish place owned by Gaddafi’s son, Mutassim—without any food or electricity.
With little contact to the outside world, he survived by eating worms and drinking toilet water – his teeth turning rotten and the pigment on his face discolouring—until he got a call from his former coach, who smuggled him over the border to Egypt. After arriving in Alexandria, he recovered and started playing for the city’s El Olympi, helping them win 13 games in a row and eventually take the championship.
I gave him a call to talk about his experience, the Gaddafi family and how the revolution changed his outlook on life.
Alex in Libya
VICE: So, that's quite an experience you went through. Can you tell me how you ended up in Libya?
Alex Owumi: It was a pretty bad time for me as a player, then my manager phoned me up and told me there was this team in Libya that wanted me to play for them. At that point it was either doing this for me or going back home. And I was welcomed there with open arms.
Did you know at that point that it was Gaddafi's team you were going to play for?
I didn’t find out it was Gaddafi’s team until I first got into my apartment. It was all beautiful and state of the art, but I noticed there were also quite a lot of pictures of Gaddafi and his grandkids. That’s when I finally asked my team captain whose apartment this was, and he told me it belonged to the Gaddafi family.
Did that scare you?
I wasn’t really scared. I grew up in Nigeria before my family moved to America, and we all sort of looked up to him there. Also, at that point I hadn’t really heard about all the bad stuff he was doing—probably because I was too busy playing sports.
Right. So what happened next? How was playing for Al-Nasr?
The training wasn’t really that unusual, but when I got there they had lost a few times in a row and some of the players weren’t getting paid or were being physically abused by the guards. There were always armed security guards around. I remember, when I was a kid, playing basketball and just having fun—even when I went to high school and started playing professionally. But that’s kind of hard when you have a guy with an AK-47 standing in the corner during training. And when you play a game you just can’t lose.
Was your life controlled outside of training at all?
No, I could basically go anywhere I wanted. At that time the city was still very pro-Gaddafi, so when I went to the market to buy food or went to a restaurant I never had to pay for anything. It was all provided for. And I had a driver, too. There was just nowhere to go, really; Benghazi isn’t a very exciting city.
The view from Alex's apartment in Benghazi after the revolution had broken out
Had you anticipated the violence at the beginning of the revolution at all? Where were you when everything started kicking off?
There had been protests going on for a few days. I was on my roof, looking over the city and the main square, where there were about 300 people protesting. I was supposed to meet my coach, Sharif, later on. I went downstairs to get a bottle of water and then went up again to see how things were going. Suddenly the military arrived and started shooting into the crowd, and that was the beginning of it all. I ran back downstairs into my apartment and tried to call my teammate, Moustafa, but the phone was dead—everything just stopped. I was trying to call my parents in the US, but nothing was working.
And what happened next?
My apartment was basically in the middle of the fighting zone and I couldn’t get out. The food I had lasted about two days, and I had no electricity, no running water—nothing. I eventually started drinking out of the toilet, and when the hunger pains got really bad I started eating cockroaches and worms that I picked out of the flowerpots. The shooting and fighting in the streets continued all the time.
How did you eventually get out of there?
I still had my mobile phone, but I had it off most of the time to save the battery. One day, after almost two weeks, I heard this strange noise and suddenly realized it was the phone ringing. It was Moustafa; he was asking me how I was, and I think he could hear the pain in my voice. He told me he had found a way for us to get out, but I was just like, "We’re never gonna get out of here." The important thing for him was just to get home and get to his family, but he didn’t know that I hadn’t eaten at all or that I had witnessed certain things, so he thought it would be easy. He told me to meet up with him the next day at the coach's office.
I'm assuming it wasn't too easy to get over there.
I was really struggling to make it downstairs as I was so weak already, but I met a group of kids outside the building who I used to play football with. They were now carrying guns themselves and they helped me navigate my way through the city. At the office, our team president, Mr Ahmed, had organized a car to bring me and Moustafa to the Egyptian border, a six-hour drive. It took us 12 hours in the end, with so many rebel checkpoints to pass, but we made it eventually.
Alex holding the Egyptian championship trophy
How come you stuck around in Egypt for a while rather than going straight home?
My coach in Libya, Sharif, was Egyptian, so I first went to stay with him when we arrived, and the plan was that he would put me on a plane back home. But then he saw me, and looking the way I did and talking the way I was he kind of predicted that it would have been bad for me to go home at that point. He knew that I had people at home who loved me, but he didn’t want my family to see me like that. It was hard enough for him to see me like that.
Then you played a season for El Olympi in Alexandria, right?
Yeah. Sharif predicted that basketball would help me to rehabilitate, and it actually worked—even though people were saying, "This kid is crazy."
The game saved you.
Yeah, basically. Basketball is kind of my safe haven. My father and my uncle both fought in the civil war, so they kind of understood the things I was going through. But what happened to me in Libya really opened my eyes to what’s going on in other parts of the world. I look at things differently now. And I’m just trying to keep moving.
Alex is now in the UK, playing for the Worcester Wolves, and has written a book, Qaddafi’s Point Guard, about his time in Libya.