In the late 1990s, the Mudiays’ homeland was a battleground in a bloody African war. Rwanda, a small country on its eastern border, invaded Zaire in ’97, sparking a conflagration that would involve 10 nations. The country’s rich natural resources—minerals and timber—were looted. Reports of rape, dismemberment and murder were widespread. Over the next nine years an estimated 5.4 million people died in the conflict and its fallout, according to the International Rescue Committee. Kinshasa, Congo’s capital and largest city, was a flashpoint. Stephane and Jean-Michel remember the charred, rotting corpses of people who had been girded by tires and burned alive. They remember the bullet-riddled bodies. They remember the pop of rifles and the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic weapons at night. Once a stray bullet tore through one of their windows, clipping a relative in the shoulder. “I try not to think about it,” says Jean-Michel, his voice trailing off. “Those images are hard to forget.”
Cavaliers forward Christian Eyenga was 9-years-old when he learned how disposable life could be in a homeland rich with resources and impoverished by instability. He watched as rebel soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians at a street corner in his native Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eyenga heard the gunfire and the screams. He ran from the scene, escaping harm but not the gnawing fear that tomorrow would bring more of the same. “There were a lot of people shot,” Eyenga said. “You just saw people dead in the street. It was crazy. You just wanted to go somewhere safe. “Back then, you didn’t plan for a future, you lived life in the present. You grow up thinking, ‘In two minutes I could be dead.'”
Spanish agent Pere Gallego rode through the hardscrabble streets of Kinshasa (population 10 million) with a different kind of shooting guard by his side four years ago. He was stunned by what he witnessed. “It was very sad,” Gallego said. “There were just thousands of poor people everywhere. The wars had left the city in ruins.” The UN annually releases a Human Development Index, which ranks 187 nations using health, education and income as composite measures for well being. The Democratic Republic of Congo finished last in its 2011 report. Life expectancy in Eyenga’s homeland is 48.4 years. His brother Khomedy, the one who taught him how to play basketball, died at age 21 in a car accident.
Eyenga is proud to represent Congo and wants to hold a charity event to raise awareness of his country’s plight. The Cavs are aware of the desire and willing to assist him once he provides the details. Team insiders say there is not a more appreciative player than Eyenga, who often volunteers for community outreach functions. In a sport where its stars are sometimes criticized for their sense of entitlement, Eyenga marvels at how many basketballs and sneakers are supplied at the Cleveland Clinic Courts training facility. “Life is easier here,” he said. “Look, we have a gym where we can come and play any time. You don’t have these opportunities back home.”