A few steps past the quarter guard a deserted basketball court with a fractured floor and grass stretching from its bushy fringes, to kiss the hoops, welcomes you inside Mubende Rehabilitation Centre (MRC).
Bullets shattering eyes, bombs fracturing hands, landmines taking legs, are some of the tales you’re about to hear.
It’s 8:13am Friday. Fifteen amputee soldiers shed their camouflage uniforms for green and yellow jerseys. After a few stretches, Sergeant Ismail Rembe, in full army attire, with a slight limp, whistle on lips, referees the amputee soccer training match between Simba and MRC. The speed, energy, passion and fun with which these ex-combatants play are so enormous only the crutches substituting their impaired legs remind you of their disability.
When it threatens to rain, with everyone profusely sweating, the match ends with MRC leading 1-0.
On the lower side of the pitch, teams named Arua and Nebbi play goalball. The three-a-side players wear eyeshades to balance the sight abilities of the partially sighted and the fully blind. One pushes the ball to the opposing side. The bells inside it help the players “see the ball with their ears” as one told me. Silence is a must, only the referee's whistle and the ball talk. The receiving side must catch the ball before it crosses the line, lest they concede. You should see them spreading on the floor, sometimes colliding heads.
Meanwhile, the skies clear after slight drizzles, the footballers drop their crutches, put on their torn army pants for sitting volleyball. The field is uneven: five players against four, instead of six-a-side. Sgt. Rembe plays passionately but: “I don’t know why the players don’t like volleyball,” he says worriedly.
Sharing the dirty, cemented-but-cracked court are those playing boccia, the newest sport here for the brain-injured.
Training is every Wednesday and Friday.
“Punguza ugali,” is a common phrase, whenever one overhits the ball. It’s a jocular way of saying “reduce on posho” that gives you excess energy.
Swahili is the lingua franca but mine is as basic as their English. Major Deo Twesigye, the MRC sports coordinator, known as Afande Deo, helps with the translation, despite his struggling voice—he has a huge scar in the chest due to a gunshot during the Bush War.
From front to pitch
In 1997 Sgt Rembe was patrolling the Uganda-DR Congo border to block former rebel leader Juma Oris’s West Nile Bank Front from crossing when he stepped on a landmine that blew off his right leg. He pulls off his prosthesis and I realise his leg was cut just above the knee.
After the operation at Maracha Hospital, a stubborn, painful tissue kept protruding. The doctor suggested another operation.
Rembe refused: “I told the doctor that to undergo another surgery, I would wish I die from the theatre; I was just fed up.”
Abandoned by the doctor Rembe paid a nurse who secretly gave him 10 CCs of penicillin daily. In three weeks, the tissue had dropped off. Amazed by his swift recovery, the doctor apologised for abandoning him.
“But even after recovery, I still felt useless, only waiting to die,” Rembe recalls. “But coming here in 1998, I saw people with worse deformities; some had lost both legs, arms; others demented. But they were carrying on. I felt a bit lucky.
“I found soldiers playing goalball and other physical exercises. But when UNAPD brought Danish coaches here, they gave us many skills and hope; we now feel like stars,” Rembe says with a free smile.
Before engaging in serious sports, he struggled with his artificial limb. Nowadays fitter, “I wear it all-day, I dig with it and I once walked with it 20 miles from Koboko to Yumbe, my hometown,” he says.
That his son is marrying soon, the prospect of becoming a jjajja (grandpa) at 39 leaves Rembe smiling gratefully, looking back at the miles and years away from deadly minefields and gruesome pain.
While Rembe dreams of playing against other nations, Lieutenant Anthony Opoka tasted it in April, winning silver at International Para-Badminton in Nsambya. Opoka, a bomb survivor in the Kony war looks sad—as if recalling the Lord’s Resistance Army’s brutality—but when he shares the feel of meeting “the best in the world”, his lips slit for a brief smile.
“Through badminton I’ve met players from Poland, India,” Opoka, 42, says. “I made friends who advise me on how to develop my talent.”
He hopes to play abroad, gain more technics and tap whatever opportunities fate could offer.
Lance Corporal Denis Andevu, 34, is multitalented. He won gold in javelin, discus and shotput at the 2016 Disability Sports Gala in Busia. He also inspired the MRC amputee soccer team to national trophies at the gala, beating Kampala in 2014 and 2016.
The gangly striker dreams of playing in the World Cup. Andevu is also a leader who stands in whenever the head coach is away on leave, as he was in September when I visited.
A victim of the Kony insurgency, Andevu came here in 2009, three years since a landmine slashed his lower right leg. When tasked for details, his face switches into "discomfort" mode. But he remembers he was driven (126km) from Yei, South Sudan to Moyo Hospital in northern Uganda, before being referred to Lacor Hospital in Gulu.
“Anything can happen during war, but I hadn’t imagined myself losing a limb. I thought it’s the end of life. But sports has given me another view of life, another hope,” he says quietly. “I wore jackets all-day, but thanks to sports, I’m fitter and warm all the time.” Of course the pain returns, occasionally, but life goes on.
“One evening, Kony rebels wanted to abduct civilians in Pader. We confronted them in fierce fire exchange. They ran away; when we followed them we found ourselves ambushed. We regrouped and apprehended them. They were preparing posho in their enclave but dispersed on our arrival. We followed their footprints, towards 7pm their footprints disappeared with the rain. After a long trek, we rested, kumbe they were ready waiting for us. Bullets welcomed us and a ferocious battle ensued. They lost four, but just when we thought it’s over, a bullet came from very far, tore into my temple, through my left eye,” Staff Sergeant Charles Bavule, 39, narrates how he lost his sight.
Since coming to MRC in 2004, he has played goalball, the oldest sport here, and he fondly recalls the white canes (which guide the blind) he and teammates won after a tournament in Mbale in 2012.
“When the Danish coaches came here, it took us just four days to master the new tricks, which had taken the Ghanaians three years.
“We even beat the Danish coaches; I think we can beat any team,” Bavule brags, repeating the last sentence four times.
Brigadier George Kibirango, revered as Chief, heads the MRC. Proud of the UNAPD sports project, Chief says MRC was established to rehabilitate soldiers wounded in the line of duty. “Sport is cardinal to physical rehabilitation of our wounded combatants,” he told me from his well-furnished office, decorated by framed photos of decorated fellow NRA Bush War veterans.
Chief praises Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD) and their Danish partners for the 2014 project that brought equipment, introduced new sports—amputee soccer, sitting volleyball and boccia—and imparting playing and training skills to wounded soldiers.
Parasport Denmark, the major project benefactor, hired among other experts, Steve Johnson, the Everton and England legend to introduce amputee soccer to the soldiers.
When I met Johnson conducting another amputee soccer clinic at Kampala Hockey Grounds in November, the three-time World Cup winner in the late 1980s, told me he was impressed by how quick the veterans grasped the game.
On the right of Chief’s sprawling, shining coffee brown table is a cabinet full of trophies his men have won, but his biggest trophy is “seeing these disabled soldiers happily participate in sports.”
Since World War II, adaptive sport for the wounded warriors is advancing: in 2010, USA invented the Warrior Games, from which 16 war veterans made the 2016 Paralympics team. Prince Harry picked the template to form The Invictus Games, for British and Canadian war veterans. Since 2014, the event has happened thrice, inviting countries from other continents except Africa. Just next door, Rwanda Sitting Volleyball Team, the first from sub-Saharan Africa to qualify for the (2016) Paralympics, was founded by two athletes who lost limbs fighting on opposite sides of the 1994 Genocide.
Scholar Opoti, the UNAPD project coordinator, says unlike other places, like Nebbi, Busia, where people with disabilities face several limitations to concert, mobilising MRC was easy “because the soldiers are many and live together.”
She commends the Ministry of Defence for supporting the project. “The ministry has bought more equipment, built facilities and funded their sports trips,” she says, wishing the culture only continues.
Boccia has transformed Corporal Isac Iyaa, 39, from an isolative into a very interactive person. He says he and the 19 players freely mix with fellow soldiers and civilians outside the rehab centre.
“I used to be docile,” Iyaa says, “But since I began this sport, as the doctor advised me, my physical and mental status has improved.”
Boccia isn’t very physical but the tension of sliding your balls closest to the white jack ball, to accumulate points and because in Mubende, it is played on a roofless court, it squeezes some sweat out of you, and “that’s good for me and my joints,” Iyaa says.
Does he have bigger dreams? “Sana, kabisa,” he answered meaning “absolutely.” Iyaa lost his right arm to a bomb and suffered brain damage during a battle against Kony’s LRA rebels in 2001, before fracturing a leg in a field accident in Mubende.
Talking interaction, two of his little daughters watch him play. When Iyaa takes a break, the younger, perhaps six years old, sits on his lap, taps his hairless chin, igniting a fatherly smile—lovely spectacle. No wonder, Iyaa lives here with his wife and 10 children.
Motivation in despair
Sam Mubajje, 26, is the finest product of this project. Training in Kampala and competing with the top nondisabled athletes has improved him, brought him nearest to his sporting dream, though twice disappointed.
“Joining the army was a childhood dream come true; we admired one of our friend’s father—a Captain,” Mubajje says. “We saw ourselves as soldiers in the making. We made it.”
But on a disarmament mission in Karamoja in 2007, Mubajje was shot at and had his left arm amputated at Matanyi Hospital in Moroto.
Coming to Mubende in 2009, “I always cursed myself, feeling hopeless but when I met comrades with worse disabilities I forgot mine; I felt for them,” he told me after training at Makerere University Grounds.
He seized opportunities: joining sports, playing some soccer with nondisabled villagers and his favourite—running. He also joined Army Secondary School nearby.
Tried by the National Paralympics Committee in 2015, Mubajje qualified for the All-Africa Games in Brazzaville but was dropped for lack of funds.
This year, dedicating more time to the track, the sprinter missed registering for the A’ Level exams, qualified for the T47 100m in the World Para Athletics Championships but again with co-trainee Al-Bashir Bwaga, missed the London trip for inadequate funds.
Twice bitten, he is unsure about the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but he won’t shy.
“That’s exactly what keeps me going, training with almost nothing. One day someone will be touched and give me the support I need,” he hopes. Having switched dreams from the front to the track, the Lance Corporal believes an international medal (like the gold David Emong won in London) can elevate his rank. That’s finding motivation in despair.
As Lt Opoka and others played badminton on the uncovered court, they always complained of upepo—the disruptive wind that swung the ball into unintended directions.
Opoka, the badminton and table tennis coach-player, is most concerned: “These are indoor games, but outside, it’s hard under the winds.”
But lack of equipment is urgent. Near Afande Deo’s office is a store keeping wheelchairs for racing and basketball; throwing chairs for javelin and discus, basketballs, soccer balls, rackets, etc. Sadly, most are obsolete.
“We really need more equipment,” Afande Deo said, adding jokingly “If you have a billionaire tell him we will be grateful for his donation.” Opoka is also worried that since the national coaches chose him to coach his colleagues in 2014, they never returned to give him more training technics.
And ask all the players, ‘is that all?’ They will respond: “We need more tournaments, more exposure.”
Chief knows. But he says “we can only cut our coat according to our cloth.”
But there’s commitment to sustainability: Chief promises to fix the dilapidated basketball court in two months, the volleyball court and the football pitch in a year.
It’s not all-sport, though. There’s a tailoring workshop, carpentry and the soldiers’ gardens covering the hills.
Rembe’s beans and maize on two acres supply food for his two families (one in Yumbe). And he sells the 10 sacks to supplement his salary.
Elsewhere, a prosthetic leg costs about Shs5m. Those made in the MRC orthopaedic workshop here are free for these national heroes.
Shortly before 2pm, Rembe and others met Chief, who would officially tell them there were no funds for the annual Sports Gala in Gulu. It was disheartening but not disfiguring like those bombs and bullets that prematurely and permanently retired them from combat.
Actually, in Chief’s view, missing a tournament is like losing a match. You hope for another day.
Walking out, 24 minutes to Mubende town, I inwardly told the lonely basketball court: “Don’t worry, Chief is gonna sort you soon.”