Achon rises from LRA captivity to become Otuke’s son of hope

Thursday February 27 2014

Achon speaks during the opening of a new ward

Achon speaks during the opening of a new ward at the health centre.  

By Sande Bashaija

Most retired Ugandan sportsmen are synonymous with misery. Some live in deplorable conditions because they never make good money at their prime while others blow their fortune and have nothing to fall back to after retirement. Julius Achon has set himself apart.
In Awake village, Otuke District, Achon is worshipped. And he doesn’t owe his popularity to his track career that saw him win 1500m gold at the 1994 World Junior Championships. Instead, he, is cherished back home because of his philanthropy. From a health centre to churches, bore holes and agriculture projects, Achon has deservedly attained cult status among his kinsmen. “When God helps you to survive tough conditions and succeed in life, there is no reason you shouldn’t also help others,” Achon says.

In doing all this, Achon says he expects little or no reward. He is only appreciating the gift of life and trying to help others see a better day. “It is actually a miracle that I am still alive,” Achon says in a very thoughtful tone.

Inspired by tough times
Just aged 12 in 1987, Achon was captured by the then rampant LRA rebels. After three months as one of Kony’s child fighters in the wilds of Soroti, he managed to escape and reunite with his family. Living in biting poverty with his peasant parents, Achon needed something to do after escaping from Kony’s captivity.

With the inspiration of Lira-born John Akii-Bua, the 1972 Olympic gold medallist, Achon felt the legs that had helped him escape from captivity could salvage his family.
He started running and was an instant hit. He emerged the best in 800m and 1500 at county level that year and qualified for the district championships. “I was so excited about the prospect of competing in Lira.

But days after my victories I was told I couldn’t travel to Lira because the county had no money to take a team,” Achon recalled. He was devastated by the team management decision. But thanks to his soldier’s heart, Achon decided to walk to Lira.
“I tried to sell my chicken to get transport but failed to get a buyer. When I told my parents that I would walk, they took it for a joke. But I walked for 75km from home to Lira because I badly wanted to compete,” he recalled. “Luckily when I reached Lira, I made friends with some athletes from the area and they gave me accommodation and food.”

His sacrifice paid off as he won 800m, 1500m and 3000m races the next day. “I was the only runner from Otuke (then still a county). I collected 30 points and our county finished sixth out of seven. I felt very satisfied because as one person, I defeated a whole county.”
After the triumph, he never went back home. He was asked to stay and train with the Lira District team. Days later, Achon travelled with the team to represent Lira at the national championships in Tororo.


Gaining recognition
He easily won the 1500m race, receiving a 20-litre jerrycan as a prize. “When I returned home with the jerrycan, villagers swamped my home to have a look at it. They kept coming for almost a week. I think it was the first in the area because that time people were still using pots to fetch water,” he reminisced with a bright smile.
In a way, the performance in Tororo was a turning point in his career. Chris Mugisa, the then Makerere College School sports teacher was watching. He was impressed by the tiny boy and worked out a scholarship for him.

“I joined Lango College for Senior One in 1990 but spent only one term there because my parents couldn’t afford the fees. Fortunately, as I was pondering my next move, Chris came for me. He took me to Makerere College to study on a sports scholarship,” he said.
For three years at Makerere College, Achon never got to see his family. He didn’t have transport to take him back to Otuke. “During holidays, I stayed in the hostel alone. Good thing, the school was providing food for me. Then during one of my Senior Three holidays, my dad came to visit me. I was angry and happy to see him at the same time. Annoyed because I asked myself where he had got money to travel to Kampala yet he had failed to pay my fees. Seeing him for the first time in three years, however, made me very happy.”

In 1994, Achon was to be Uganda’s only representative at the World Junior Championships in Lisbon, Portugal. But like in years before, he still didn’t have running shoes. He always trained and won races barefooted. “Because of the magnitude of the competition in Portugal, I knew I couldn’t run barefooted. I borrowed spikes from Francis Ogola and got sneakers from George Odeke (former Uganda Athletics Federation president),” he said.

And in borrowed shoes, Achon delivered Uganda’s first world title which was followed by offers of scholarships from a number of US colleges. He chose George Mason University where he set a US college record of 1:44.55 in 800m. Achon competed at back to back Olympics in 1996 and 2000 but had to withdraw from the 2004 Games after his mother was shot by LRA rebels. He was in Oregon, USA when she died. “Because of the war, my family was living in a camp in Lira. Unfortunately, they always had to go back to Otuke once in a while to look for food. On that unforgettable day, mum was walking back to Lira from Otuke with a group of other women carrying food. Along the way, they bumped into rebels. They shot at them, killing some.

Opening the health centre
My mother was shot in the shoulder but she never died on the spot,” in an uncomfortable tone, Achon reflects. “Because Lira Referral Hospital had been closed due to war, there was nowhere my mum could be treated. They carried her home. My relatives called asking for about Shs3m to take her to Mulago but I didn’t have the money at the time. Because of too much bleeding, she died after four days.”

That incident, Achon says, inspired him more than ever before to fulfill his childhood dream of starting a health facility project. “My mum told me she walked eight kilometres to hospital and I was born the next day. Then after delivering she told me her breasts were dripping with blood. She couldn’t breast-feed me. For two months, I was feeding on the breasts of a different woman. After that, I was told they switched me to cow milk. I never tasted my mother’s breast milk.

I wouldn’t want to see another child suffering like me or a woman going through the troubles my mother endured. I also remember a niece who died in labour in 2009.” Suitably, Achon named the health facility he opened in Otuke, after his mother – Kristina Acuma.
“Wherever my mum is, I know she must be happy with my work. I like the fact that my family has supported me in everything that I have done. My dad donated the piece of land for the health centre and is happy to see it growing at this pace. My wife and brothers have also been very supportive,” he says.

Achon’s time in captivity

Achon narrates his time in captivity:
Even before Kony, we had the problem of Karimojong warriors attacking us to raid cows. They would come very often in the night. They always moved with dogs. So whenever we heard dogs barking, we would move out of the house and sleep in the bush and return in the morning. There was also a time when Alice Lakwena and her soldiers also terrorized the place. We used the same strategy of escaping to the bush and returning home in the morning.

The day he was captured
It was a Saturday evening. We were gathered in the neighbourhood playing football. All of a sudden, we found ourselves surrounded by soldiers. They ordered us to stay in one position. They picked out children aged between 10 and 12 and ordered the others to leave. Apparently, they didn’t want older boys because they knew at such age, they would try to escape. When some parents learnt of the incident they came to plead with the rebels to release their kids. Good thing, the rebels were never violent during such “recruitment” exercises. So when some parents came, the rebels told them to choose between taking their children back home dead or letting them go to the bush and fight for freedom.

The rebels convinced us that in future we would capture power and become important people. So the parents gave up and left because they were told whoever insisted on taking back their kids, they would be given a dead body. After the commanders addressed us, we were given guns although none of us knew how to shoot.
We were 15 boys from the same area. We walked for three nights but only went through the bushes. We were made to walk in a straight line and there was no chance of escaping. We headed towards Soroti. Life was very difficult going through the bushes.
Inside the rebel camp

When we reached the camp, we were taught how to assemble guns and shoot. It was so cold in the bush yet we didn’t have shoes or boots. We did several drills including crawling on a naked stomach for long distances. As child soldiers, our job was to loot food from surrounding areas. We were never sent to the frontline. One day, a commander ordered me to go somewhere and steal chicken but I refused. He caned me until my buttocks started bleeding. I could not sit for about a week after that punishment. I saw very many boys dying because of hunger and too much training. We also didn’t have medical facilities in the camp.

Day of escape
That morning, around 4am, our seniors went to attack Soroti town. All of us the young ones were left in the camp. The fighting was intense because we could hear the sound of guns in the bush. At around 6am, our senior colleagues started returning to the camp. Most of them were bleeding. I remember a man from our village whose nose was shattered by a bullet. I thought he would die but he is still alive. There was this UPDF fighter jet which we used to call Sula Mbaya. It used to launch attacks against us. That day, it came and attacked the exact location of our camp. We all scattered. Unfortunately, nine boys from our group were killed in the attack. The six of us who survived regrouped. We walked but struggled to locate the direction back home. But whenever we landed into ordinary people, they also wanted to kill us thinking we were criminals. After two nights and days in the wilderness, we returned home. When I returned, my family was very happy. But other parents were devastated because their kids never made it back. Three of the six boys that escaped with, later joined the government army. I went back to school because I badly wanted to study.

His projects
Kristina Health Centre which he opened in October 2012 is currently the biggest private facility in the district.
“People come from as far as Amuria, Agago, Abim, Alebtong and Lira to seek treatment here,” he added. “When we had just opened, we were offering treatment in exchange for chicken. But we reached a time when we ran out of space to store the chicken. Now we charge Shs500 for children and Shs1,000 for adults as consultation fees.” With assistance from his US-based employers Nike and a couple of other foreign well-wishers, Achon says he is determined to improve the facility to remarkable standards. He is embarking on construction of doctor’s quarters, surgery theatre, among others. Already, he has secured a donation to purchase an ambulance to deal with emergency cases.

In conjunction with Australian long distance runner Eloise Wellings, Achon set out to try and fight famine at household level by providing maize, beans, groundnuts and soya seedlings to needy families. “I coach Wellings and at times pace set for her in races. In return, she holds fundraising races in Australia to raise money for this project. So far, we have covered 700 families. After harvesting, we ask these families to return the kilogrammes we gave them and we hand them to other people. That way, we are sure people will not go a day without a meal.”
Through Achon Uganda Children’s Fund, Achon has 40 orphans under his care. He runs an athletics camp and stages competitions where the most excelling are rewarded with scholarships. Wellings, Nike and the James Fee family in the US, contribute to this cause. “Every year, Nike gives me $50,000 (about Shs120m) to run the camp and improve the health centre.”
Fee, the executive director of the foundation, also used to contribute $20,000 per year to the orphanage but was knocked dead by a car while riding a bicycle in California last October. His family, though, still supports the project.

Fittingly, Achon named the newly-opened ward at Katrina Clinic, his health facility, after Fee. The deceased American’s two sons and wife attended the commissioning of the ward.

What people say about Achon
“What he is doing is the success of my breasts. I am happy he never forgot what I did for him. He is paying my son’s school fees and has promised to help him with his education. He has helped us as a community and we are thankful,”
Mariana Adong, the woman who breast-fed him

“ When he came back from America, he asked me what he could do for the people of Otuke. I told him to start a small drug shop. But see what he has done. He has built the biggest private clinic in the district. May God continue blessing his works,”
Achon’s father