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August 6th, 2008 Hannah Hultine | Q & A
 

Julius Achon

A Portland runner’s Olympian survival story.

     
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THE RUNNING MAN: Former Olympic runner Julius Achon has helped to train Oregon’s Galen Rupp for the 2008 Games.

Before moving to Portland in 2004, Julius Achon had already lived a full life of Olympian highs as an adult and unspeakable horrors as a child in his native Uganda.

Achon (pronounced AYCH-wahn) was 12 when rebel forces known as the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted him 20 years ago from his home in the northern city of Lira.

The rebels, who the United Nations estimates kidnapped 20,000 children over two decades ending in 2006, gave him an ultimatum: Join or die. They also drugged him and other child soldiers to induce them to murder, steal supplies and participate in torture.

He escaped after three months to rejoin his parents and nine younger brothers and sisters, who had survived by hiding in the jungle. His family didn’t have enough money to eat, much less the $20 per semester needed for Achon to attend school.

But Achon, whose uncle John Akii-Bua won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles, began running up to 20 miles a day. And his success in local races led to an athletic scholarship in 1990 to run and study in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. In 1994, Achon put on his first pair of running shoes to win the 1,500-meter World Junior Championships in Portugal, which led to a full-ride track scholarship at George Mason University in Virginia.

In America, he won an NCAA title in 1996 in the 1,500 and competed for Uganda in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, making it to the semifinals in the 1,500 both times. He didn’t compete in the 2004 Olympics because that was the year the LRA killed his mother.

A back injury from a 2007 car crash ended Achon’s hopes for Beijing, but he works as an assistant coach in Portland with Alberto Salazar’s elite Nike Project runners, including 2008 Olympian Galen Rupp. And he uses his $20,000 annual salary from the Nike Project and donations from other sources to support 11 orphans and his family in Uganda.

WW: Are you afraid of people finding out you were a child soldier?

Julius Achon: Not anymore. I am protected through what I have done for my village. [But] I am afraid of going back to Uganda to live. I am just afraid to be in my country. You are never comfortable—you either get robbed or get killed.

Did you ever have to kill anyone?

One time they instructed me. Then I refused. The man who instructed me was one of my relatives. So he didn’t want to kill me, but he beat me almost to death. I could not sit on my butt for seven days. One of my close cousins shot a man in the head—it killed that guy. It is something where the little kids are just happy to kill people. Even when they shoot, they laugh.

Do you think you and the other child soldiers would have acted the same without the drugs?

No. It was because of the drugs. They gave it to us in our food. You really don’t see. You just feel. Your mind wants to kill and punish all the time. Even when you feel happy, you don’t feel mercy at all.

How did you manage to escape?

Government planes approached our camp. We were over 1,000 people. All the bosses were just running—they didn’t care about us. We just dropped our guns and started crawling like monkeys. Once you raised up, the government planes would think we were rebels and shoot at us. Nine of us were shot. Once they rose up, the bullets got them.

Do you ever think about those nine kids?

Always. We used to make jokes together. We went to school together. Sometimes I feel like they are not dead. Still some of their images come to my mind. You see the person remaining is dead, you cannot do anything or cry. You can only wait for your turn. So it became just something normal. You just keep moving.

During a race, do you ever remember your escape?

When I was a kid in races, I would think back to walking around in the bush without shoes, carrying a gun.… Working now with the Oregon Nike Project, I work so hard to pace the other runners. I can bear the pain longer because I know this kind of pain is not going to kill me like a gun. When you come from hardship where your family cannot afford fees, it makes you find an extra will. I would never have been a runner without my difficult childhood, I would have been farming sugar cane, peanuts and raising heads of cattle.

Compared with your life as a kid, ever wonder how weird it is now to be paid by Nike to train kids?

I think about where I came from all the time. Now I always tell my life story to the athletes I coach. I tell them how lucky they are to have shoes on their feet and have enough food to eat. You know the best runners in Uganda still eat only one meal a day.

Do you ever feel like you’re dreaming?

Every day.

FACTs: In February, the Ugandan government and the LRA signed a ceasefire.

Achon doesn’t know what drugs the LRA gave him, but other media have reported that child soldiers got amphetamines and tranquilizers to blunt fear and pain.


MORE: To help Achon with his orphan project, go to achonacademy.com.

FACTS: In February, the Ugandan government and the LRA signed a ceasefire.

Achon doesn’t know what drugs the LRA gave him, but other media have reported that child soldiers got amphetamines and tranquilizers to blunt fear and pain.

 
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