Julius Achon ran away from civil war all the way to the Olympics. Then he saw 11 starving orphans huddled under a bus.
On a muggy morning in 2003, Julius Achon rose early for a 10-mile run through the streets of Lira, north Uganda. He’d returned for a brief family visit while training for his third Olympics, and his loop that morning finished at the town’s open-air bus depot.
Eighteen years of bloody civil war had ravaged the area and the station was almost deserted. It was just after dawn when, pausing to stretch, Achon glimpsed what looked like children’s bodies sprawled under a bus, dressed in rags and covered in dust. Thinking he’d stumbled on corpses, Achon backed away. Then one of the bodies got up. Filthy and barefoot, she approached him to beg for money. Achon pointed to his vest and shorts. ‘I’m running,’ he told her.
‘I have none.’ The exchange woke the others. They told Achon that their parents had been shot and the homeless orphans had banded together, begging by day, then sleeping under the bus, warmed by the faint leftover heat from its engine. Achon led the children to his father’s home on the outskirts of town, where his aunt made them lunch. He watched the children take turns eating rice and beans from the hut’s few bowls. Most were very young – the smallest was a boy of around three, who didn’t know his own name. Some were also unwell. Reluctant to return them to the street, Achon asked his father if they could stay. It was a provocative request. Living space was already tight, with eight relatives sleeping in the nine-foot-wide hut, and food scarce. There was barely enough to feed the family, let alone 11 extra mouths.
After some discussion, Achon’s father agreed, as long as Julius sent money for their food. The next day he flew back to Portugal, where he lived and trained at the time, and on the flight he began to worry. Since finishing a US college scholarship, he’d been running on contract for a Portuguese running club, which only paid him around £3,000 a year, plus a portion of his so-far meagre race winnings. Feeding the orphans would cost him roughly a quarter of his salary and he was already too broke to afford rent. For the past two years he had slept in the club basement, a storage area without electricity or heating.