Fight came to him
Forced into a rebel Ugandan army at age 6, Ouma escaped via boxing
They came before lunch to steal his soul. Kassim Ouma had no idea what the soldiers wanted when they walked into his classroom with their big guns and loud voices. It seemed as though they wanted to take the children for a ride. It was a childish thought, but what else would you expect from a 6-year-old?
Should he have known they were there to turn him into a kadogo when he had no idea what that meant? Should a 6-year-old boy know that they had come to teach him how to shoot a machine gun, handle a knife, make a bomb, and throw a grenade by the time he was 9?
Why should a child have such thoughts? And how can he forget what he saw that day and what his life became? How can the mind erase the pictures and let him forget the things he did in the name of freedom?
Unlike many things taught in his schoolroom that morning in 1984, that was a lesson easy to learn. You do not forget. Life goes on, but you do not forget seeing some of your schoolmates run away in tears and hearing the guns explode and watching them fall, blood soiling their school uniforms. Who shot them when they cried? Was it the soldiers? Or was it you?
Pushed into a garbage truck with his surviving classmates, Kassim Ouma disappeared into the high grass outside of Kiboga, the town in Uganda where his sister had sent him to boarding school. His family didn't see him again for four years. A classroom full of children disappeared that day. When they reemerged, they were children no longer. They were kadogos. Child soldiers. Hard little men and women who only looked like children. Little bodies with stones for hearts.
Kassim Ouma learned his first death lesson that day from the rebel army of Yoweri Museveni, who was fighting to overthrow the violently oppressive regime of Milton Obote. Obote was the Ugandan president whom Museveni had served as a minister before retreating into the bush with 26 men to create the National Resistance Army that would eventually seize power in 1986.
When members of the NRA came, they took away Ouma's childhood, they took his innocence, and he soon understood they would take his life if he didn't follow orders. But they could not take his soul, because he was a fighter, even on that first day.
It would be many years before the world heard Ouma's name. He was a fighter still, but now a professional one who a week ago was supposed to contend for the International Boxing Federation junior middleweight title in Joplin, Mo., nearly 20 years after his war began. Like many things, that opportunity was taken away from him -- at least temporarily -- but as tragedies go, it is far down the list of the ones he has known.
Ouma had hoped two children would be in the crowd that night. His 9-year-old daughter, Alima, and 7-year-old son, Umaru. Two children from Uganda whom their father hasn't seen in seven years. Maybe they will be there to watch one day, if the red tape ever clears. Who can know for sure in a country where a child can still be snatched from a schoolroom and emerge a year or two later with a machine gun?
This is the story of a warrior born and a child lost. The child died in 1984 but the warrior lived on.
Memory is his enemy
"You couldn't even look outside," says the 25-year-old Ouma as he sits on the back porch of a condo he shares with several boxing friends at the Fernwood Resort in Bushkill, Pa., in the Poconos. It is an idyllic place. As he speaks, a golfer tops a 6-iron on the fairway 20 yards away.
This is where the junior middleweight contender came to prepare his mind and body to challenge Verno Phillips, whom he has beaten once before. But he prepared for a fight that never happened. It is one of the few battles Ouma ever missed.
He ran before dawn to get ready, but some days it was hard to train not because he lacked resolve but because he lacked sleep. Some nights, when his eyes closed, the dream came back. The one with the knife and the little boy. The knife was wielded by a kid who looked like him.
In the garbage truck that day, Ouma saw what happened if you made the mistake of thinking you had options. If you looked outside, someone yelled at you or struck you or pointed a gun at you. If you cried too long, you got shot. So you learned not to look. That was Lesson 2 on Day 1. The first lesson, learned when the guns went off in the schoolyard, was that you do not cry. It has been 20 years. He still cannot cry.
"I was 5 or 6," recalled Ouma, his eyes darting, focusing on no one. "They took girls. Boys. People ran. They put us all in the garbage truck. Later on, we did it, too, when I was in the government army. Sometimes we'd come to a house and tell the parents, `Somebody's son has got to go.' You like or you don't like. They take you either way. They got to get the kids for the army."
According to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and UNICEF estimates, there are currently more than 300,000 children under the age of 16 being exploited as soldiers in 30 conflicts around the world. In Uganda, there were about 3,000 such kadogos in Museveni's NRA 20 years ago. Today, a new rebel army led by Joseph Kony is believed to have kidnapped more than 15,000 children into his Lord's Resistance Army in the north of the country, and he has launched a savage campaign of violence that has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes, according to Museveni's government. Regardless of who rules, it seems, children disappear.
"The first time I shot, I was not as big as a gun," recalled Ouma, his legs bouncing nervously. "I fell right to the ground. I had to learn not to fall so I put a stone behind my foot. I figured it out. If you didn't, you died. I became a guerrilla. A soldier for my country. A corporal. Nobody can mess with that. I was mean."
What does it mean to be mean at 9 or 10? You take someone's lunch money? Not in places like Uganda. There, you take someone's life.
"Kassim is a great guy," said Tom Moran, who along with Jim Rowan manages Ouma's boxing career. "He smiles all the time. But sometimes he can't sleep. Then he has a different face. He's not Kassim."
He is Kassim, but a different one from the guy Moran knows. Hard eyes. Hard face. Hard child in Uganda.
"I did a lot of things," said Ouma. "I always had my gun half-cocked. That was a warning. Trigger No. 1. I was a child no more. I was about business. If I don't like you, I spit in your face.
"I'd arrest people and take them to the police and tell them to hold them until I came back. The police knew if the guy wasn't there when the little kid came back, I'd shoot up the police station.
"I seen so many people blown up. Women. Children. You do things or you die. So much stuff went on. It wasn't until I was 10 that I began to understand. I was always careful not to lose my gun. I had an SMG, a machine gun made in Yugoslavia. It came with three magazines."
Three magazines, but not ones like J-14, Teen People, and Sports Illustrated for Kids.
"Ninety rounds," Ouma said. "I could carry 90 and the gun. Before I had a gun, when I was little, we would dress in school uniforms to go by the government army and see what they were doing. Or we'd carry a bookbag. Who knew if it had bombs or not? I close my eyes a little bit and I'm right there. That's why I don't talk about it. When I tell deep stories it don't feel good. I see things and I cannot sleep."
He closes his eyes for a minute, then excuses himself. His memory needs a break.
Finding a way out
If ever anyone was, Kassim Ouma was saved by boxing.
A lot of kids on the fringes of society can say that, but none more than he. Boxing saved him not just from the ravages of poverty and despair, but from a government's brutal army.
Rebellion raged on even after Museveni's child soldiers marched with him into Kampala, Uganda's capital, in victory. For several more years, young Ouma remained in the bush "chasing bad guys," and seeing his family of 11 brothers and sisters and his parents sporadically.
Finally, he saw a way out. He joined the army judo team and traveled to tournaments but quickly figured out there was another sport that could make his life better.
"I was 14," said Ouma. "Boxers went to tournaments all over Africa. It was a good deal if you made the national team. The whole purpose was to get on a plane."
Ouma weighed 55 kilograms when he started, about 121 pounds. He was a bantamweight with little experience in boxing but a lifetime of experience in fighting. There was much he didn't know about the sport, but he knew how to win.
"I fought for the street kids' school in Kampala for a while," he said. "Then I got on the national team. I beat our lightweight champion in 1996, but they didn't take me to the Olympic trials because there were other guys with more experience. That's how it worked."
By November 1997, Ouma had the experience. He had become one of Uganda's top amateurs, a three-time national and East African champion with a 60-3 record. He was then issued one of the most valuable pieces of paper in Uganda -- a travel visa -- to fight at the World Military Games in San Antonio. Ouma knew the team lacked the funds to go, but there was something special about this piece of paper. Something he didn't fully understand but something his survival skills told him demanded deeper consideration.
When people learned he had this visa, they began to offer him money for it. He was offered a house for it. The offers screamed one thing to him.
"I didn't sell it because everyone was trying to buy it," he said.
Realizing this was something that could change the course of his life, Ouma, now 19, began going from business to business asking for money to pay his way to the competition. He picked up a little here, some there. He was Uganda's finest boxer, after all, and the national sportsman of the year, so who wouldn't help? Soon he had enough to buy a plane ticket.
"I knew someone living in Richmond [Va.] and they told me if I got the money to get to Washington, there would be people to help me," he said.
On Feb. 8, 1998, the ex-child soldier landed in Washington, with no intention of going on to San Antonio. He got off the plane, walked outside and . . .
"It was soooo cold," he recalled. "I stepped right back inside. I asked somebody if this is how it would be. If it was, I was going home."
In the end, Ouma didn't go home. He knew better. Instead, he went homeless.
The search is on for a gym
Things get lost when you travel. More things get lost when you travel under stress. Ouma had reason to be stressed, so maybe that's why the piece of paper with the address in Richmond disappeared.
When he finally ventured into the cold, Ouma tried to get a cab, but the drivers refused to take him anywhere without an address, so he got to the highway and started walking, hoping someone would stop.
Remarkably, someone did, and Ouma got to a cheap hotel in Alexandria, Va. The next day, he made his first purchases in the new land.
"I went to K Mart and bought a bike and a leather jacket," Ouma said. "I've still got the jacket. I got on the bike and started looking for a boxing gym. I was riding on [Interstate] 95. I knew if I could find a gym I'd be all right."
He couldn't at first, but he soon found work handing out flyers door-to-door for a local pizza parlor. Every time a door was answered, he would ask one question: "Do you know where there's a boxing gym?" Most times, the door was slammed in his face, like a solid jab you can't slip.
He walked or rode his bike until the flyers were gone. Then he'd return to the pizza joint to wash trays and eat the scraps left on plates. Uganda was looking better every day.
"Chicken wings, pizza slices people didn't eat," Ouma said. "I got tired of that, so I got a job as a laborer, but I was running out of money. When I didn't have enough to pay the hotel, they threw me out."
For a brief time, he lived with a woman who put him to work, but soon he was back on the street until he found a homeless shelter. He was taken in there, but after a few days, he was asked for his Social Security number. He had no idea what they were talking about, so he was back on the street, a lost soul with little understanding of American money or much of anything else except for a blind faith that if he could find a gym, he'd be OK.
"I didn't know how to use a phone," Ouma said. "I was giving away quarters and keeping pennies because they were so shiny I liked them more. My life wasn't so good, but I found a gym when I met a manager at a fight card. There were two professionals I could spar. I was an amateur kid from Uganda, but I was giving them hell.
"I didn't speak good English. They made fun of me. I didn't care. I said what they said. All I wanted to do was fight one pro fight and go home. I thought you got to pick who you wanted to fight. I wanted to fight Oscar De La Hoya, make a million and go home. I didn't know nothing."
Nothing except how to fight, and he did that well enough to end up at the Alexandria Boxing Club, where he got in touch with 75-year-old Hall of Fame trainer Lou Duva, who offered him $300 plus room and board for 10 days of sparring in Florida.
"He was raw, but you could see he had something," Duva said. "This kid has drive. You hear his story, you understand why. This is a beautiful kid. He's seen some bad things but all he does is smile. And he can fight."
On July 10, 1998, five months after he came to America, Ouma got his first chance to prove that, knocking out Napoleon Middlebrooks in his pro debut in Fort Lauderdale. Five months later, he married a 31-year-old American girl and sought political asylum. The marriage barely lasted a year, and some have hinted that it was an arrangement not unfamiliar to immigrants or the Immigration Service. But on Dec. 7, 2000, he was granted his request. It was the same year his father was shot and beaten to death back in Uganda for Lord knows what. That was a grim reminder of what Ouma realized in those early months in Virginia, when he had no place to sleep.
"I thought about going home sometimes, but I knew what would happen to me if I did," he said. "I'd go to jail or be killed. So I stayed."
Pitfalls in and out of ring
In the six years since his first professional fight, Ouma has gone 19-1-1 with 12 knockouts. According to his manager, his only loss came when he was mugging for a girl in the crowd and got clipped by a guy who never should have touched him.
It is the only blemish in Ouma's climb to become one of the best junior middleweights in the world. Co-promoted by Duva's son, Dino, and Russell Peltz of Philadelphia, Ouma has walked a hard road in boxing, but nothing like the one that led him to America. Yet even here, he could not avoid the blast of gunfire.
Dec. 1, 2002, dawned like any other day in West Palm Beach, Fla. Hot and sunny. Things were going well for Ouma. He was a fighter with both a future and a job as a host at a local restaurant. Then a car pulled up, a gun went off twice, and he was on the ground, shot by a co-worker. Even to a child soldier, it made no sense.
"We had words," Ouma said. "I said, `You suck.' I don't think that's something to get shot over."
Serious damage to his lower abdomen had him thinking that his career was over, but six months after having surgery to remove a segment of his intestine, he defeated Angel Hernandez in an elimination bout for the IBF's No. 1 ranking. He threw 1,190 punches that night and landed 374, more than 200 more than Hernandez. The decision was closer than the fight, but Ouma had survived. Again.
During his climb to the No. 1 ranking, Ouma has beaten six world-rated fighters, more than most boxers have to face to get a title shot. For the past 13 months, he's been trapped as the IBF's No. 1 challenger, unable to get an opportunity to fight the 154-pound champion, Winky Wright. The wait appeared to be a blessing when Wright shocked the boxing world by outpointing the division's other champion, Sugar Shane Mosley, before he was to face Ouma. Now, it seemed, Ouma would get not only a shot but a shot for the unified title. But this is boxing, which is a jungle all its own.
To get the first Mosley fight, Wright had to agree to an automatic rematch if he won, meaning his next fight would not be with Ouma after all. As soon as the date for the rematch was announced, the IBF stripped Wright and Ouma was told to fight Phillips for the vacated championship. It never happened, though, because Ouma woke up less than a week before the fight with tightness in his chest that turned out to be a pulled muscle so painful he couldn't breathe when he moved. Not even a child soldier can fight like that, so Moran pulled him out knowing it could be months before another such chance appears.
Through all of his wanderings in America, Ouma has followed the lead of many immigrants before him. He sends money home every month to help his two children, his mother, brothers, sisters, and cousins. He is putting three children through college and four more through high school. He does not have much by American standards, but it's so much more than his family that it is easy to share.
He fights on to bring two children who barely know him to America while hoping one day soon they will have the chance to watch a former child soldier fight a battle in which fists, not bullets, fly.
Until then, he will hear stories from home like the one his aunt told him about his son Umaru, who asked, "Why do the other kids have real daddies and I have a phone daddy?
That's a long story his father may never fully share with him. It's a story of pain and suffering, but also a story of perseverance and triumph. A story with many chapters, some of which reveal themselves only in the dark hours when a boxer tries to sleep and instead sees a boy with a knife staring back at him.
"That is a time I do not want to remember," Ouma said. "I was fighting but I didn't know what I was doing. I don't like what happened to me, but I don't blame the government for what happened. It was bad I got picked, but it was good for my country. I helped to free my people.
"Child soldiers were the freedom fighters. Now I'm just hoping the politicians will help me. I was never a child. Can't I see my children grow? I miss my babies. I would like to see them here forever."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.