Running for their lives

Kenya's long-distance runners are moving targets in a recent outburst of ethnic violence -- two have been murdered and many more fear death.


Thilo Thielke
February 14, 2008 5:20PM (UTC)

At 6 a.m. it is cold up here in Iten, a mountain village 7,874 feet above sea level in the Kenyan highlands. Thamer Kamal Ali laces up his running shoes and pulls his hood over his head, as if trying to conceal his identity. He is slightly built, 19 years old, hardly more than a child. A hurdler, Ali has several kilometers of road ahead of him today, a route that takes him past roadblocks, burned-out cars and the ruins of houses. The ethnic violence in Kenya reached Iten six weeks ago. Ali is shivering, but not just because of the cold. He is afraid.

Iten is one of many training centers for Kenyan long-distance runners. It lies about 18 miles from Eldoret, a city in the western Rift Valley. World champions and Olympic medalists have trained in Iten, a legendary place in the world of professional runners. The Kenyans are proud of this village and its inhabitants, who run in small groups through the darkness. Nowadays, Ali only trains very early in the morning. "It would be too dangerous later in the day," he says. "That's when people with machetes rule the roads."

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The catastrophe descended upon Kenya in late December, when it was revealed that President Mwai Kibaki had come to power in a rigged election. Within days, barricades were burning throughout the country and, in Eldoret, people were burning, too. They were members of the Kikuyu ethnic group, which Kibaki belongs to. For five years he has ruled this country. His Cabinet is considered one of Africa's most corrupt, and his associates are notorious for having brazenly filled their pockets and given preferential treatment to members of their own ethnic group in a country with more than 40 tribes.

After the election, members of the Kalenjin tribe set fire to a church in Eldoret. Thirty people, mostly women and children, died in the blaze. Most of the residents of the Rift Valley are members of the Kalenjin tribe. Many Kalenjin, who consider themselves the true masters of the country, feel besieged by members of the Kikuyu tribe who have settled in the region. Many runners also belong to the Kalenjin tribe.

Since the fiery death of the 30 Kikuyu in Eldoret, the unofficial death toll in Kenya is 1,000, though the real figure is probably higher. The victims have been hacked to death with machetes, killed with poison-tipped arrows, or shot by the police. There are 300,000 internally displaced people.

Despite the danger, Ali completes his daily training regimen. A specialist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, he brought home two gold medals from the 2005 Asian Indoor Games in Bangkok. He is ambitious. He runs at 6 every morning, shivering and afraid for his life.

"Should I tell him: Go home, neglect your profession, drop everything, and leave it alone?" asks Ali's coach, Yobes Ondieki. Discipline, says Ondieki, is the only way to overcome one's own fear and concerns about one's family. Ondieki, a former world-class runner, was the first man to run 10,000 meters in less than 27 minutes. That was in Oslo on July 10, 1993.

Ondieki is sitting in the restaurant of the Kerio View Hotel drinking a Coca-Cola, facing an enormous glass wall. Perched on a cliff, the restaurant offers a magnificent view over the tops of acacia trees and of the broad valley below. Ondieki looks down. In the grasslands below, bush fires are burning. The milky-white smoke, typical of a bush fire, looks like fog. The smoke from house fires is dark, almost black. Before now, no one in Kenya would have paid much attention to the color of smoke.

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Ondieki has received anonymous text messages, too, disparaging him for being a Kalenjin -- and a murderer. "The country is in ruins," he says. "There is no longer any security anywhere in Kenya. The police are even shooting at children with live ammunition." It is virtually impossible for the runners to focus on their training here. Kenya's national Olympic trials would normally be held soon, and the season of major marathon races in Europe and the United States begins in April.

"Giving up," says Ondieki, "would be the worst thing to do now." He tries to preserve at least the appearance of normalcy, hoping to keep the runners from becoming discouraged even as everything else around them falls apart.

In Eldoret, Moses Tanui has barricaded himself into his Hotel Grandpri. The former 10,000-meter world champion has hardly even ventured into the street since the evening of Dec. 31, when his best friend, 400-meter runner Lucas Sang, was murdered. Sang and Tanui were almost inseparable. They met in London in 1985, shared the same manager, and trained together in the highlands.

Sang got mixed up in a Kikuyu riot. They hacked him to death with machetes. "Everyone knew Lucas," says Tanui. "He was a hero." Sang and Tanui are members of the Kalenjin tribe, which can be a death sentence in the new Kenya.

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Tanui is also well-known in Kenya. Tanui also has money.

But his wealth can't protect him. On the contrary, money is one reason why Kenya's top athletes live in fear. There have been rumors that Kenyan runners are funding tribal militias, including a group called the Kalenjin Warriors, and that the athletes use their money to buy weapons, transport the weapons in their big cars, and allow the militias to meet in their large houses. "There are people who claim that my hotel is a meeting place for groups of killers," says Tanui. "But that's nonsense. We are athletes. We want to run, not fight." Then he locks the door and glances over at the street. "We are on the path to civil war," he says. "It is a war between one tribe and the rest of the country, and it will be terrible."

The ethnic violence in the Rift Valley has worsened in the wake of the murder of an opposition politician by a police officer two weeks ago, and there is no end in sight. In a place where public order no longer exists, old scores are settled and long-forgotten rivalries are suddenly reignited. The conflicts get so caught up in each other that you can hardly separate one from the other. Each side has its dead to avenge, and each side fears the revenge of others. This is not an African phenomenon. The situation was no different in the Balkans.

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The disputes are about clan allegiances. About land. About money. Envy plays a role, too. Where chaos reigns, the underprivileged are quick to turn to violence. There is a vast divide between rich and poor in East Africa.

Even during normal times, Irish running coach Colm O'Connell, who operates a training camp in Iten, also doubles as a psychologist. "We should never forget the world we live in here," says O'Connell. "An ordinary Kenyan makes about $100 a month. Many don't have the money for decent shoes, and they can't even afford to properly feed their own children." And the runners? "Whoever wins the London Marathon comes home with $100,000, plus maybe another $50,000 from his sponsor, not to mention the premium."

O'Connell is a stocky redhead, the sort of man you could easily imagine drinking a pint in a Dublin pub. A former missionary from Cork, he has been working as a teacher in the remote Kenyan highlands since 1976, when there was neither electricity nor running water. He quickly recognized the Kenyans' aptitude for running, and by his second day in Iten, he was already coaching local runners. Today, O'Connell has 45 athletes under contract and is considered one of the most successful trainers in Africa.

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The situation has become almost unbearable for many Kenyan athletes. But where can they go? If things got even worse, they could cross the border to Uganda, or perhaps to Ethiopia. In that case, many would have to leave their families behind. Besides, Iten offers the best training conditions. At this altitude, the climate is mild, the air is clear, and there is no malaria. For endurance athletes, Iten is a paradise. Even German runners come here to train -- in quieter times, that is. Four weeks ago, the last foreign athletes were evacuated.

O'Connell isn't surprised that the Kalenjin have produced so many world-class runners. Unlike the Kikuyu, members of the Bantu ethnic group, the Kalenjin are Nilotes. They are tall and slender, the descendants of nomads who followed their herds through the barren countryside for weeks at a time, surviving on a basic diet. Kenyans have few options to escape the typical cycle of unemployment, poverty and hunger. In the Kenyan highlands, being a runner is a dream profession.

It is for Thamer Kamal Ali, the young runner who now begins his training every morning at 6 a.m. He is from Marakwet, a district where the legendary runner Moses Kiptanui grew up. Kiptanui, a three-time world champion in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, set a number of world records and won a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He is a popular hero, celebrated every time he returns to his home district, and he has been Ali's idol since childhood.

Ali has been training at Yobes Ondieki's athletic center in Iten since 2005. He is considered a great talent. Word of his potential has even reached Qatar, which granted him citizenship so that he could represent the tiny Persian Gulf oil sheikdom in international competitions. He earns a respectable salary and supports his parents and eight siblings.

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Since retiring in 2000, Kiptanui has worked as a talent scout, a coach and even as a trainer of the Kenyan national team at the World Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Paris. In the meantime, he built up a real estate company. He is what O'Connell calls a role model.

But Kiptanui also lives in fear. Three weeks ago the police stopped his driver, who had just bought a sack of potatoes. Everyone knows Kiptanui's cars. "You're transporting weapons," the police officers said to the driver. Then they beat him and, before letting him go, said: "We're going to kill you, and we're going to kill your boss, too."

"The police can murder people in this country," Kiptanui says. "Anyone. At any time. Just like that."

After the incident, Kiptanui and 56 other athletes, including Olympic gold medalist Ezekiel Kemboi, wrote a letter. It was a cry for help. The athletes wanted to describe what is happening in Kenya to the rest of the world -- and to explain that they are innocent. "We are accused of having purchased and transported guns, bows and arrows, and other weapons that were used in the violence after the elections," the athletes wrote. "But this is not true."

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Kiptanui has made his case publicly, a move that makes him an even bigger target for the fanatics. Three weeks after the murder of Lucas Sang, marathon runner Wesley Ngetich was killed by a poison-tipped arrow, and Luke Kibet, the 2007 world champion in the marathon, was hit in the head by a rock. He survived, but since then he has carried a German-made G3 automatic rifle for protection. Kiptanui, for his part, no longer wants to hide.

Kenya's athletes seem to have been caught in a deadly cycle. "Of course, they use their money to help their communities. They practically have a moral obligation to do so," says Colm O'Connell. "And in the end, who knows whether the money is really used to buy a sack of corn or a bow?" But few in the Rift Valley believe that Kenya's sports idols, of all people, are somehow in league with the militias.

"It's absurd," says Kiptanui. "Overseas, we all run for Kenya and are considered the pride of the country -- no matter what ethnic group we belong to. But, here at home, everything is falling apart, and we're fighting each other."


This article was provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon.

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Thilo Thielke

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