Last Tuesday, James Oduor died. He didn’t die of illness or natural causes. Nor did he take his own life. Terrorists killed him.
I did not know “Cobra”, as his friends called him.
But his needless death diminished me as did the deaths of all those who died with him.
Once again, we are forced to look at the spectre of terror and to wonder whether there exists any expertise in the world that can help us understand this scourge which makes some people revel in the wanton waste of other people’s lives.
Here was your regular, good guy who just loved to encourage kids at the grassroots to play football and whose life has now been extinguished by creatures with a morbidly twisted notion of right and wrong. Now there is a young widow whose world has been shattered.
And two little orphans.
Incredibly, there exist people who think this crime can be justified.
Cobra’s tragic fate brings to mind memories of sportsmen who have faced the bullets of people who have no moral constraints. Remember Angola.
On January 8, 2010, the Togolese national football team was travelling by bus through the Angolan province of Cabinda to take part in that year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
Cabinda is a troubled region.
It has vast quantities of oil but the population feels short-changed by the government in Luanda which they claim keeps all the revenues from the oil and throws crumbs at them. As a result, a movement calling itself the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (Flec) has been agitating for the independence of the territory.
When Angola won the right to host Afcon 2010 and selected Cabinda as one of the host cities, Flec saw a chance at drawing world attention to their plight.
They ambushed the convoy carrying the Togolese team as it crossed the border from the Republic of Congo. It is nigh impossible to understand what would make people believe that spraying a bus carrying footballers with machine gun fire would advance their cause for economic justice, whatever its merits.
But that is exactly what Flec’s demented gunmen did. The Angolan bus driver was killed on the spot, rendering escape impossible. Amelete Abao, the team’s assistant coach and Stanislas Ocloo, a television sports journalist, died of their bullet wounds the following day. Of the nine players injured, goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale’s condition was the most serious. He was shot in the lower back and bullet fragments had entered his stomach. He was airlifted to South Africa where surgery saved his life but not his career.
Because of his superstar status, a lot of attention was put on Manchester City star Emmanuel Adebayor and to a lesser extent on his Aston Villa colleague, Moustapha Salifou.
Both were unhurt but badly traumatized. In comments published in the international edition of The Guardian, Adebayor said: "I think a lot of players want to leave. I don't think they want to be at this tournament anymore because they have seen their death already.
“Most of the players want to go back to their family. No one can sleep after what they have seen today. They have seen one of their team-mates with a bullet in his body, who is crying, who is losing consciousness and everything.
"We are still in shock. If the security is not sure then we will be leaving tomorrow. I don't think they will be ready to give their life. We will discuss everything as a team and we will take a decision that we think is good for our career, is good for our life and good for our family."
Togo withdrew from the tournament and back home, three days of national mourning were declared. The still traumatized Adebayor announced he had quit international football but he was later prevailed upon to rescind his decision.
To this day, January 8, 2010 remains a darkly defining day for the Togolese footballers who, in the perilous safety of their bus floor, experienced firsthand how the devil works.
The grimmest story of sports lovers and terrorism was played out before a disbelieving audience of one billion people during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.
Andre Spitzer, coach of the Israeli fencing team, gave voice to the innocence characteristic of sportspeople in a private call he made to his wife Ankie from the Olympic Village. The date was September 4. He told her how he had fraternised with Lebanese athletes. “Are you out of your mind?” she asked him. “You know, these are the Lebanese, it’s dangerous.” He replied: “No, Ankie, this is not dangerous. This is what the Olympics are all about. That’s why I am here. Here there are no borders. We have no enemies here.”
Ankie Spitzer later told a documentary film maker: “We talked very quickly and he said: ‘I love you.’ I did not realize then that these were the last words I would hear from him.”
That night eight Palestinians in track suits and ski masks broke into the quarters of the Israeli team. In their gym bags, they were carrying AK47 rifles, pistols and hand grenades.
By the time the police arrived, they had already murdered their first victim, wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg.
“At 7 o’clock in the morning, my parents came into my room and they said to me: “Well, you should know that we just heard on the radio that Arab terrorists came into the village and they are keeping a number of Israelis hostage,” Ankie recalled.
“Every couple of hours, the Palestinian terrorists would issue an ultimatum and then the ultimatum would be postponed to 3 o’clock. And then it would be postponed to 5 o’clock.
“It was like dying a little every time because of that feeling that now it is going to happen.”
Germany entered into negotiations with the terrorists, who were demanding the release of 234 Palestinians held in Israel while buying time to prepare for a rescue operation.
The mission went awry and the terrorists killed all their captives. Eleven Israeli athletes lay dead when it was all over.
Ankie insisted on going to see the room where her husband had been held. She said: “I just looked there, and I said to myself ‘this is where Andre spent the last 21 hours of his life. A guy who really loved life and who loved the Olympics and the idea behind the Olympics.
“If this is what they did to him, if he had to sit here, 21 hours looking at one of his team mates being tortured, I said: somebody is going to pay for it.’” Indeed, many people did. As the relatives of the victims gathered to bury their dead, the government of Israel plotted revenge.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Golda Meir said Israel would do exactly what the terrorists had just done – escalate the problem to anywhere in the world.
She said: “We must fight them, wherever they may be.” Israel was going to take terror to the terrorists, she declared.
Ankie said: “She called all the families together. We had seven widows and 14 orphans and she promised us that anyone who was connected to this terror attack would be hunted down and would be brought to justice.”
Thus begun Operation Wrath of God, one of the most controversial actions ever undertaken by a government as part of official policy. Yossi Melman, historian of the Israeli national intelligence agency, Mossad, said:
“That was the first time I think in the history of Israel and maybe in the history of the world that the state decided to pursue a policy of personal killing in a systematic way.”
And Simon Reeve, author of the book, One Day in September observed: “Of course, launching an assassination campaign is completely illegal under international law. But Israel was a young country and many of the leading members of the government had been involved in groups that we now describe as being terrorist so they had guerilla warfare mentality and they applied that to the formation of Operation Wrath of God as it came to be known.” Israeli agents fanned out across Europe and the Middle East with a list of people to kill. Anyone Mossad determined was remotely connected with the Munich atrocity was on the list.
And one by one, they were shot — in streets, in hotel rooms, in beaches and in their homes.
The commander of the unit that carried out these assassinations was Ehud Barak, who would later himself become a Prime Minister of Israel and is the country’s most decorated soldier. Ankie recalled: “I would get a phone call, and I had no idea who it was, and they would say ‘listen to the news at 10 o’clock.’ Before she could ask why, the caller would disconnect the phone. She would then turn on the radio and listen to the news and hear that “this guy or that guy who was connected with the Munich massacre was liquidated, was eliminated, was assassinated or whatever you want to call it.”
Operation Wrath of God, which went on for over two decades, ended when Mossad agents mistakenly killed Ahmed Bouchikhi, a Moroccan waiter taking his pregnant wife home from a movie in the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer, more than 200 kilometres from Oslo. They did this in the belief that he was Ali Hassan Salameh, chief of operations for Black September, the group responsible for the Munich massacre.
Norwegian police arrested the Israeli assassins as they attempted to leave Norway and the cover of Operation Wrath of God was blown.
Avtar Singh is the Olympian who has competed in the most number of Games for Kenya – four in all. He was in Munich for the last of his appearances that started in 1960. He told me: “I never imagined in all my life that anything like this could happen.
What could drive somebody to train his guns on innocent athletes? That incident altered my perception about people in a very profound way.”
To the family, relatives and friends of “Cobra” and all those who were killed or injured in the Tuesday atrocity in DusitD2 Nairobi, sorry.