Ouma fighting memories as child soldier in Uganda
Language is mankind's most common method of communication, but it also can be a verbal wall that separates us when we do not understand the words uttered by others.
Kassim "The Dream" Ouma speaks English, but, just as Panamanian great Roberto Duran -- who knew enough words to make himself understood in that unfamiliar tongue if he so chose but insulated himself behind his native tongue -- the Ugandan's thick, African-accented speech enables him to slip behind a screen of inaccessibility when he'd prefer to keep his thoughts to himself.
So, what's the Samia equivalent of No hablo ingles?
"Kassim speaks very good English if he takes his time," Ouma's manager-translator, Tom Moran, said of the former IBF junior middleweight titlist who will challenge middleweight champion Jermain Taylor on Saturday night in Taylor's hometown of Little Rock, Ark. "I always tell him at press conferences to take a deep breath and go slowly."
"The problem with Kassim, more than anything, is that he has a tendency to speak very fast. He's wound up so much, it's just a release of energy. He wants to go on to the next thought as quickly as possible. And when he gets into uncomfortable areas, he has a tendency to go even faster."
It might be inferred that the largest chunk of the 27-year-old Ouma's past has been an uncomfortable area. Recriminations are everywhere, rife with visions of blood and death that swirl around him and invade his sleep nightly. "The Dream?" Ouma's life is in many ways an ongoing nightmare that has him in its clutches and shows no signs of loosening its terrible grip.
When you have experienced the horror that Ouma (25-2-1, 15 KOs) has as a child soldier in Uganda's civil war, the prospect of sharing a ring with even such a big, strong and talented fighter as Taylor (25-0-1, 17 KOs) doesn't seem quite so daunting. Maybe that's why Ouma, who now lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., has temporarily turned over the unwelcome chore of public relations to Moran, who doesn't like apologizing for his fighter's sudden reticence. But, hey, in any language a man has to do that which is in accordance with his own conscience.
"Talking is not going to win this fight," Moran said. "Focusing on this fight and doing everything he can to win it means more to Kassim than words. Kassim has one shot at it. This is the fight of his life, or least the boxing match of his life. He realizes that.
"His attitude is, 'I'm going to do what I have to do to beat Jermain Taylor.' He said, 'Uncle Tom' -- he calls me that -- 'you deal with everything else.'"
"All right, I'm dealing with it. We don't need to talk about Jermain. Let Jermain think whatever he wants. Let the public think whatever it wants. The only thing that matters is what Kassim does against Jermain on fight night."
There will be a film crew in Alltel Arena continuing its work on a feature-length documentary about Ouma's remarkable, tragic life. If the project, which expects to finish shooting in February, is to have an upbeat ending, Ouma will have to upset Taylor and, through his lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., gain diplomatic relief from the virtual death sentence that awaits him should he return to Uganda.
But even if all the chips fall exactly right, it will take more than having his hand raised in victory against Taylor, and official permission to visit his homeland, to grant Ouma meaningful relief from his burden.
"No matter how happy he seems at any given moment, the sadness he feels never goes away," Moran said. "We were at the gym a couple of weeks ago and someone asked if he was going to watch the documentary on child soldiers in Uganda that was going to be on the Discovery Channel. Kassim's demeanor changed, just like that. 'I lived it,' he said. 'I don't have to watch it.'
"The thing is Kassim has to learn to realize that he was a victim then and he's a victim now. He has to learn to let go of the guilt for the decisions he had to make in order to survive. I really believe he has massive issues of post-traumatic stress that he's dealt with as best he could. But the memories are never far from the surface, and almost anything can dredge those memories up."
In Ouma's case, those memories are like scars upon his psyche. He was just 6 years old when rebels stormed into his grade school in Busia, Uganda, in 1984 and abducted all the boys. Ouma and his frightened classmates were herded into the back of a garbage truck and driven into the bush, where they were forced to fight with the guerrillas.
Handed an AK-47 that was larger than he was, Ouma suddenly found himself a kadogo in Yoweri Museveni's rebel army.
The first day, Moran relates, the adult soldiers told the children that "there's no more mommies and daddies now" and that "if you cry something's going to happen to you."
Some of the kids cried and, true to their word, they did not live long enough to fathom the high cost of their tears. Ouma was even ordered to shoot one of his friends, or run the risk of suffering the same grisly fate. Simultaneously terrified and repulsed, he complied.
"Can you imagine?" Moran said, aghast that such atrocities can exist and be forced upon the youngest and most vulnerable members of even a violent society. "This is what Kassim has locked up inside him.
"When he finally is ready to agree to it, I hope to get him some professional help so that he can learn to forgive himself. He made a conscious decision as a child to do things, terrible things, which no one should ever have to do. He feels responsibility and guilt for, well, still being alive. That's what torments him and he can't let go of."
As in boxing, there usually are winners and losers in life. Museveni's guerrillas seized power in 1986, but then there were new rebels to challenge their stranglehold in the country. Ouma's forced conscription continued. In what can only be described as an ironic twist, Ouma got to lay down his submachine gun when he put on a pair of boxing gloves and joined Uganda's national team.
"If I didn't fight [with guns and bombs], I would have been killed," Ouma once said. "That is why boxing comes naturally to me."
But as he grew older and learned bits and pieces about the world that lay beyond Uganda's borders, Ouma began to dream of turning professional in a golden land of freedom known as the United States.
The impossible dream began to come into focus in 1998 when the Ugandan army boxing team competed in the World Military Boxing Championships in San Antonio, Texas. Ouma walked away one night and kept going, eventually making his way to Virginia. He left behind his wife, his two children and the father he said was later beaten to death in retaliation by members of the very army Ouma had been served in.
Not that his new life in America was noticeably easier than the one he had left behind in Uganda. For a time, Ouma was homeless; he eventually got a minimum-wage job delivering fliers for a pizza shop.
Ouma asked around until he got directions to a local boxing gym and the door to his true calling. Not long afterward, he was on his way to West Palm Beach to become a sparring partner for leading junior middleweight contender Zab Judah.
Only three months after he arrived in this country, Ouma had his first pro bout, a first-round knockout of Napoleon Middlebrooks on July 10, 1998, in Fort Lauderdale. Two months after that, he married an American woman -- the union lasted less than a year -- and he was granted political asylum.
It has mostly been an upwardly mobile journey since then for Ouma, a southpaw whose exceptional work rate -- he unfurled a remarkable 1,331 punches during a 10-round bout against Verno Phillips in 2001 -- has been his trademark. He won the IBF 154-pound title in a rematch with Phillips on a unanimous decision on Oct. 2, 2004, and seemed poised to settle in for a long reign. But after only one successful defense, against Kofi Jantuah, Ouma looked ordinary -- less than ordinary -- in losing a unanimous decision to Roman Karmazin on July 14, 2005. For all intents and purposes, the outcome was sealed when Ouma, a 4½--to-1 favorite, was knocked down twice in the first round.
Even those close to Ouma wondered if he had become too satisfied, too comfortable, to retain the drive that had stamped him as something special. Philadelphia's J Russell Peltz, who with Golden Boy Promotions co-promotes the ever-smiling Ugandan, suggested that Ouma had made the fateful mistake of presuming victory and had trained accordingly.
"I think Kassim thought he was Superman," Peltz said at the time. "I think he had questionable out-of-the-ring activities in the weeks leading up to the Karmazin fight.
"He had 25 people in his hotel room every night. He was staying out late. I tried telling myself that it'd be all right, that Kid Gavilan used to party before every fight. But 30 seconds into the first round, I could tell that Kassim wasn't himself."
Moran, however, said Ouma entered the ring that night a much troubled young man. Having his friends around was his way of attempting to counteract the pain.
"Kassim doesn't want to make excuses, so I won't make excuses for him," Moran said. "Karmazin beat him on that particular night, all right? But Roman Karmazin did not beat the best Kassim Ouma. Not even close. Put it this way: Kassim's body was in Las Vegas, but his mind was in Africa."
Ouma has pieced together a four-fight winning streak since the Karmazin debacle, the last victory a 10-round, unanimous decision over the previously undefeated Sechew Powell on Aug. 5 in Madison Square Garden, to gain his shot at Taylor. But once again his thoughts are dark and foreboding. Death has followed him from Uganda to America, and its repercussions are no less fearful here than they were there.
"Encountering death in this country ... I guess that's something he wasn't quite prepared for," Moran said. "For this fight, he's wearing green trunks with a butterfly patch in honor of my sister, who he called his Mommy Patti [Simkanin].
"My family's become extremely close to Kassim, but my sister was particularly attached to him. She looked out for him almost as a mother would.
"I had to tell him the day after the Sechew Powell fight that Patti's cancer had come back. She thought she had beaten it, but then they told her that there was nothing that could be done, that it was only a matter of days before she passed. When I told him she wasn't going to live, we both cried our eyes out. But when he went to see her, I think she gave him inspiration and strength by the way she was facing what she had to face."
At 5-foot-8, Ouma looks almost puny standing next to the 6-1 Taylor. Bernard Hopkins, the longtime former middleweight champion who twice lost close decisions to Taylor, has said Ouma has to be "better than perfect" to leave Little Rock with the title in his possession.
But Ouma is nothing if not determined. He has grown up too fast and too hard while losing pieces of his soul to the madness that human beings can create for themselves and for others. Not even another world championship is likely to make Ouma whole, or to rid him of the nightmares of a stolen childhood.
Until something better comes along, though, it's at least another step in the healing process.
"Hopefully, the last scene in the documentary will be of Kassim as a world champion going back to Africa, and maybe even Uganda," Moran said. "We have been lobbying Congress to have his situation resolved through diplomatic channels.
"Three days after Kassim won the junior middleweight title from Verno Phillips, an army spokesman in Uganda said if he ever came back, he'd be arrested for desertion. Kassim knows that the punishment for desertion is execution. He knew exactly what that guy was saying."