A CHILD SOLDIER FIGHTS ON
Former child soldier Kassim Ouma, who boxed his way out of Uganda to asylum in the U.S., claimed the International Boxing Federation’s top junior middleweight ranking on Friday night, the latest victory in a lifetime of battles he’s faced since becoming a soldier at the age of seven.
The 12-round bout at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut showed a steady and focused Ouma, recovered from bullet wounds he suffered in a drive-by shooting last December, methodically working his opponent, Angel Hernandez, with calculated jabs and swift combinations. He gained a split decision and now may get a fight with International Boxing Federation champ Ronald “Winky” Wright.
Still ecstatic even hours after the victory, Ouma (17-1-2, 11 KOs) smiled and danced in a velour track suit and declared, “I’m a soldier, you know that.”
But Ouma has more than the usual war stories. Kidnapped into the National Resistance Army in Uganda, he fled his country in 1998 as a boxer and defected to the United States. His journey has paid off, but not without a price. He left behind his family, two children, and a father who he says was killed by government forces shortly after Ouma fled.
The 24-year-old Ouma still fights with his memories of a horrific childhood. “I was a guerrilla,” he tells the Voice. “I was fighting to take over the government. Really, I didn’t know what I was doing. When I found out the whole thing about me being taken, I didn’t like it—I still don’t like it.”
Ouma tells this story: He was abducted from school in Kiboga, Uganda, in 1984, at age seven, by rebels with Yoweri Museveni‘s insurgent force, who loaded him and his classmates into a garbage truck and drove them into the bush, where they began their lives as soldiers. At age nine, Ouma was old enough to carry and use an AK-47. It would be six more years before he could trade that weapon for boxing gloves and join a military boxing club, the Bombers. During that period, the rebels took power and transformed themselves into the Uganda People’s Defense Force. Ouma, who’d spent his grade-school years as a rebel, became a soldier in the regular army as he entered adolescence.
“They used to call us kadogo,” he told the Voice in West Palm Beach, Florida, his current residence, last January, as he recovered from his wounds from the drive-by shooting. As he repeated the word kadogo (Swahili for “little one”), his usual smile faded into a distant stare.
Being a child soldier didn’t make Ouma unique. More than 300,000 children are used as combatants, sex slaves, and porters in conflicts throughout the world, according to Human Rights Watch. What’s unusual about Ouma is how he survived. He received no help from non-governmental organizations, religious charities, or the UN. Instead, he became a boxing champion in the Ugandan military, and on a visa to the World Military Boxing Tournament in San Antonio in 1998, he defected while in Washington, D.C. After spending some time homeless, scrambling around the capital searching for a gym, Ouma found his first fight in Norfolk, Virginia, an amateur Golden Gloves bout in which he replaced a fighter who failed to make weight. Ouma hadn’t trained for the fight and didn’t know the opponent, but that didn’t matter.
“I was like this is my life right here, so I got to—it’s my time to shine,” Ouma recalled. “I step in here and shine.”
A decisive victory in Norfolk set Ouma on the path to become a pro; he now trains under veterans Lou Duva and Johnny Bumphus. A year ago, he claimed the United States Boxing Association154-pound crown, but his title was stripped after the fight when he tested positive for drug use. Then, in December, he was shot—Ouma says it was by a new acquaintance of his. Ouma insists that he doesn’t know why he was shot, but he’s undeterred.
“That changed my heart a little bit, but my heart has been changed a long time ago,” Ouma says. —Johnny Dwyer
YOU’RE TRAVELING THROUGH ANOTHER DIMENSION . . .
It was hard not to feel a touch nostalgic at Shea last weekend while the lowly 2003 Mets took two out of three from the ever-hated—and ever-first-place-occupying—Atlanta Braves. While the Braves left town still holding the best record in the National League, the Mets continued to improve on their one and only league-leading stat: consecutive weeks placing players on the disabled list, with the addition of outfielder Timo Perez (strained calf) and pitchers Mike Stanton (sore knee) and Pedro Astacio (arm falling off).
Throw in the sight of John Franco coming all the way back from surgery and appearing in his first game in a year and a half at age 42 on the very day that David Cone retired, citing an arthritic hip, and things could not get any more Twilight Zone-surreal at Shea right now. And then we walked into the press dining room on May 31 and saw the following former Mets assembled for lunch after an autograph session: Steve Henderson, Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, and Dan Norman. Those were the exact four players involved in the June 15, 1977, Massacre Day trade that sent Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds. Joining them, bizarrely enough, was Joel Youngblood, who came to New York from the Cardinals in another deal that very same day. In fact, the only person missing at Shea last Saturday from the infamous Massacre Day trades was the guy the Mets got from San Diego when they dumped Dave Kingman. His name? Bobby Valentine. —Billy Altman