This excerpt appears in the book Qaddafi's Point Guard: The Incredible Story of a Professional Basketball Player Trapped in Libya's Civil War by Alex Owumi. The author spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview and read Bill's book review.)
From Chapter 7: Benghazi (After)
One morning, about seven or eight days into my confinement, I opened my eyes from a brief catnap and noticed an unfamiliar wetness at my cheek, which had been pressed to the floor by the door to the bathroom. It was still dark, but the sky had just started to brighten, so I put the time at about six a.m. I couldn't understand the wetness at first, couldn't place it. Then, for a beat or two, I did a little jump for joy in my head, because I’d decided that the wetness meant the water had been turned back on.
It was a foolish leap of logic, I realize now, but at the time I let my head fill with an adrenaline shot of hope. I thought, Okay, the worst of it is over. I thought, Here on in, I’ll find my way through. I figured it was only a matter of time before the power was restored, before the phones started working again, before I could find my way back home.
But that’s not exactly how it happened. What happened, actually, was that the wetness I felt was the sewage backing up. The water came up through the toilet, and there was shit and brown water and sludge all over the bathroom. And the smell! Oh, man, was it foul. Just vile. I took one step into the bathroom, then I turned and stepped right back out. I slammed the door behind me, thinking this would help. I was barefoot, so now I was just covered in shit, and there was no way to wash it off, no way to keep the sewer water from seeping through to the next room, so I grabbed a bunch of sheets and towels and a big old comforter and just threw them all down on the floor outside the bathroom door. Then I threw some powder on that mess of linen, to kind of mask the stench.
Luckily, the sewage didn't reach all the way into the living room, so I was able to move around out there pretty much as before, but the apartment still stank something fierce. And, even worse, I was now out of water, so I went from this momentary high of thinking the water had been miraculously turned back on to realizing I’d have to do without the toilet water I’d been sipping and bathing in for the past week or so. Just like that, I went from thinking I was saved to knowing I was screwed.
For the rest of that day, I moved around in a blind funk. I listened to the shouts and the gunfire on the streets below and thought it was just like so much noise. I looked down at all the violence and the protests and the chaos and thought it was like some damn screen saver, just something going on in the background. I was numb to it . . . to all of it. I couldn't think what to do. But then, when I was sitting and staring out the window, daydreaming, I got an idea. I noticed three big flowerpots by the windowsill, and I guessed there’d probably be a couple of ounces of rainwater trapped in the saucers beneath the pots. Dirty, muddy, wormy rainwater—the stuff you don’t even notice when your world is set right. And sure enough, there it was. I grabbed one of the flowerpots and tipped it over. Set a cup right beside it to catch the runoff. Then I took a spoon and tried to filter out the worst of the sludge and the soil, and I could almost convince myself that it wasn't nasty, that it was drinkable. And it was. Just barely.
One thing I noticed when I started digging around in those flowerpots was that they were filled with worms and bugs, so later that day, or maybe it was the next morning, I gathered up whatever will I still had and started poking around in the pots, looking for something to eat. I was absolutely starving, would have eaten just about anything, so I couldn't let myself think this was so gross or awful. It was just survival, man. That’s all. That’s how bad those hunger pains had gotten, after just a few days. They pushed me all the way to fishing in flowerpots for bugs and cockroaches and worms. The first time I did this, I took a cup and pinched four or five roaches and took them back inside. Then I sat and sat and stared at those suckers, trying to muster up the courage to actually eat one. I’d seen a show on the Discovery Channel, Man vs. Wild, in which this dude Bear Grylls would eat rabbits and leaves and cockroaches and spiders, just to survive in the wild. That’s where I got the idea, only I couldn't bring myself to actually do it until finally I just dropped one to the floor, stomped on it, peeled it up off the floor and popped it in my mouth.
Oh, it was bad. Just, awful—like, a million times over. I made a face like someone might have been looking, as if making a face would maybe make the cockroach go down a little easier. And I could hear the thing go all crunchy and squishy from the inside of my mouth. But then, as soon as I swallowed, I remembered on the show how they said you weren't supposed to crush the cockroach before eating it. All the guts come out, so you lose all the nutrients, all the protein. The key is to eat it alive, so I swallowed hard and gave myself a sip of dirty rainwater to help wash it down and tried to find the strength to try again. A few moments later, I pinched another roach from the cup and popped it in my mouth, trying superhard not to think about what I was doing. And you have to understand, these were big-ass, African-type cockroaches—they looked like giant water bugs—but I just chomped down hard and bit into this sucker. This second one, the live one, tasted kind of salty. I could feel it squirming around in there for just a beat, and then when I bit down on it, all I could think was that it was salty and gross.
But I kept it down. I had to fight it, but I kept it down—and I’ll be damned, I started to feel like I had a little more energy, so I ate a couple more. Ate a couple of worms, too, so that’s how I got by the rest of the way, eating bugs and worms from the flowerpots outside my window. Switching from toilet tea to dirty rainwater tea.
Doing whatever I had to do to survive.
Reprinted from Qaddafi’s Point Guard by Alex Owumi. Copyright (c) 2013 by Alex Owumi. By permission of Rodale Books. Available wherever books are sold.
This program aired on October 25, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.