South Sudan War Vets Find New Life in Wheelchair Basketball

June 12,2016

JUBA— In Juba, South Sudan, veterans of the 22-year-long civil war with Sudan meet once a week to play wheelchair basketball. Disabled people in South Sudan face discrimination, high rates of substance abuse and unemployment, but these men show what else is possible.

The men meet at Juba Basketball Stadium every Tuesday. Some are war veterans with missing legs. Others were stricken by polio.

But all of them are athletes. These are players in South Sudan's Wheelchair Basketball Association.

A wheelchair basketball player tries to block a pass by an opponent at a basketball court in Juba, South Sudan, May 24, 2016.
A wheelchair basketball player tries to block a pass by an opponent at a basketball court in Juba, South Sudan, May 24, 2016.

Gatluak Kual Luak helped found the team in 2011. He lost his leg as a soldier in the Second Sudanese Civil War in 2000. Like many others, he learned the sport as a refugee in Kenya.

"Wheelchair basketball, it is not easy game. It is very technical," he said. "You need a lot of courage. You need a lot of mind. Let me say, you have to be committed. It has changed [the] bigger part of disability in me to ability. I realized that I can do anything like other people. Disability is not inability."

Polio victims

It's not only veterans who participate. James Amule got polio when he was two years old. He says disabled people are passed over for jobs in South Sudan and are called "abukarang" — a slur.

"I have a name. I need to be called by my name, not by a nickname, as my name is called James Amule. I am supposed to be called that, James Amule, not to be called 'that disabled person,' which is not good. Even if you call me that disabled person, I will not feel like I am a human being," he said.

Already, the sport is changing attitudes.

The South Sudan Basketball Federation hopes the team will compete at this year's Paralympics in Brazil.

"Everybody will be cheering them, and that will give them a pride and a sense of representing their country," said Malik.

Courage and pride

For now, though, the team wants to grow the sport at home.

Many disabled South Sudanese sink into alcoholism and poverty. What's more, for the last two years, South Sudan has fought another civil war and produced more wounded veterans.

"We are approaching everyone out [there] to have that courage and play wheelchair basketball so that they also begin a new life, and they realize that they can still do something,” said player Gatluak Kual Luak.

For a nation in need of healing, this sport could be an example of how to move forward.