One year after the massacres, Kenya's runners reflect
Grisly stories seem to hang in the air above Kenya's Rift Valley, where many of the country's world-class runners train.
Enough time has passed that Nehemiah Kosgei can be candid about what he did a year ago, when this hilltop town famous for producing world-class distance runners gained a grim new notoriety as the center of a shocking explosion of ethnic violence in Kenya.Skip to next paragraph
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Sipping a soda on a hotel patio, the lean, 31-year-old marathoner calmly explained how he used a friend's sedan to ferry hundreds of poison-tipped arrows to Eldoret. In nearby villages, men from his Kalenjin tribe launched the traditional weapons at rival Kikuyus to avenge a disputed presidential election.
His cousin, 18-year-old Adams Kimutai, was equally frank. "I killed six Kikuyu" with those arrows, the aspiring runner said unflinchingly, as if listing his most recent time in his specialty, the 5,000-meter race.
Twelve months after the attacks killed more than 1,000 people nationwide and shattered Kenya's reputation as a bulwark of stability in East Africa, such grisly stories still seem to hang in the crisp air above Eldoret, in Kenya's rugged Rift Valley. No one who participated in the attacks has been sentenced for crimes, and few segments of Kenyan society remain as uncomfortably divided as the athletes in this area, who are part of a multi-ethnic fraternity and a longstanding source of national pride.
The region is predominantly Kalenjin, and scores of Kikuyu athletes who fled Eldoret have refused to return to the red-dirt roadsides where they once trained alongside runners of other tribes. Many lost friends and relatives in the attacks; others had their homes torched by mobs furious at the reelection of President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, amid widespread vote rigging.
Many Kikuyus now work out in the hills outside the capital, Nairobi, or in the highlands of central Kenya, their tribal heartland. Some have lost touch with their Eldoret-based coaches and are training alone, watching their times suffer.
"It's impossible for me to go back to Eldoret," said Jason Mbote, a Kikuyu marathoner who's moved to central Kenya. "I'm of a different tribe from those people. Being there, I feel uneasy."
Drawn like many runners to Eldoret's high altitude and mild climate, Mr. Mbote trained here for seven years, racking up top-10 finishes in marathons from Amsterdam to Seoul, South Korea. He married a Kalenjin woman, built a house, and bought a pickup, and every morning he'd pile more than a dozen runners into his truck and set off into the cool hillsides for training runs.
Mbote and his family were out of town on Dec. 30, 2007, when election officials declared Kibaki the winner. Friends immediately began calling him. "They are heading to your house," Mbote remembered them saying. "They say they are going to burn the house."
He sent a friend to retrieve tracksuits and a couple of pairs of running shoes that he'd obtained overseas, luxuries in Kenya. In the end, mobs spared his house. When Mbote returned in June, however, he confronted the charred remains of dozens of homes and heard an uncomfortable change in his friends' voices.