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Horror of Kenya's chaos brings new meaning of freedom to runner who escaped

Horror of Kenya's chaos brings new meaning of freedom to runner who escaped

When Wesley Korir closes his eyes he can still see members of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes chasing each other with machetes.
The Kenyan runner can still hear their angry screams giving away to cries of agony in the days following his homeland's terrifying descent into ethnic violence following the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election.
Swept up in the chaos during a visit home for the Christmas holidays, Korir spent three tense weeks escaping his homeland and returning to the U.S.
The experience gave him a new appreciation for the words in the U.S. national anthem that he learned during a collegiate running career at Murray State University and then University of Louisville.
It also crystallized his image of freedom.
"I felt like I was home," Korir said of touching down in Louisville on Jan. 16. "That was weird because I always felt like Kenya was home. But the time I came back, I felt so free. I really felt the freedom that is in America.
"When I came here the first time, they said America was the land of the free, but I never really experienced that until the trip back. Then I felt, 'Whew, I'm free.'"
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While Korir has always been appreciative of the opportunities America has afforded him, the education he's received, the doors that have opened, until recently he thought the land of the free could have applied to his homeland too.
It wasn't until he heard the knock on the front door of his brother-in-law's house in Eldoret a few days after the election that he learned how just how easily the fabric of freedom can unravel.
A group of men from Korir's Kalenjin tribe, ordered Korir and his brother-in-law to join them in protesting the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki and his Kikuyu tribe. Opposition leaders claimed Kibaki and his Party of National Unity stole the election from challenger Raila Odinga.
The men at the door urged Korir outside, telling him it was time to rise up. They told him to bring a weapon. Korir picked up two stones he found in the street and stuffed them in his pockets.
For more than a day Korir carried the stones throughout Eldoret. He never threw them, rubbing his Bible instead, doing his best to blend in as the mob marched through the city, chasing Kikuyus into the streets and setting their homes on fire, bringing the city to its knees.
By Dec. 31 the Kikuyu had regrouped and began retaliating. Korir watched as three friends were killed a few feet from him, one of them chopped to pieces and set on fire.
The madness engulfed Korir, but only briefly. Standing in the middle of anarchy he thought would remain part of his country's tortured past, Korir heard a whisper the devout Christian says was God talking to him.
"Run," the whisper said. "Run."
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It's what he'd always done.
From the five hilly miles (eight hilly kilometers) he and his three brothers raced from school to their tiny village of Biribiriet in the Rift Valley, to the time trials his mother gave him as incentive to hurry back from the marketplace, to the paved tracks in America where he became a champion.
Now he ran through the cornfields where many of the Kikuyu had retreated in fear. He ran by the burning houses. He ran past the teeming mobs that undid the country's tenuous democracy in 24 maddening hours.
He ran all the way back to his brother-in-law's house, the one with the big metal door, the one where he waited and wondered whether his dreams of becoming a doctor and returning to Kenya to help his countrymen battle the crippling grip of poverty were over.
For eight days Korir hid in his brother-in-law's home, keeping quiet when a group of armed men stopped by each day asking the women if there were any men in the house.
Occasionally Korir would venture outdoors, trying to figure out whether it was safe to try to get back to Biribiriet, 45 minutes away. More than once he risked his life, stepping in front of fellow Kalenjin as they attacked a Kikuyu man, ignoring his brother-in-law's pleas to step away.
"My brother-in-law was telling me not to go out there because I would be killed, but I told him I'd rather get killed doing the right thing than get killed for doing something that is not right," Korir said.
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It all seemed surreal. This was not the same country he left five years ago to run on scholarship at Murray State before transferring to Louisville in 2004.
It wasn't even the same country it was on the morning of Dec. 27, when he went to the polls with his family to vote.
"I was like, 'we are so peaceful,'" he said. "I can tell people in America that Kenya is really becoming democratic."
Four days later, it was all gone and Korir, like many Kenyan runners, found himself a target. He heard the reports of the death of Olympian Lucas Sang, who was killed during the postelection violence. Good friend and world marathon champion Luke Kibet was struck in the head while on a training run and barely escaped a group of machete-wielding men.
Korir is hardly among the Kenya's elite. His professional goals are modest.
There are likely no Olympics in his future. Having used up his university eligibility after finishing 12th in the 2007 U.S. college cross country championships, he's focusing on making a living as a marathoner, but knows his life's calling will likely be as a missionary or a doctor.
Yet he knows runners are part of a privileged group in Kenya, even ones from poor families in small villages who are simply using running to get an education.
"People are jealous of runners' achievements," he said. "They're jealous of you and they'll come for you. ... People that have held grudges for years are using this as an excuse to show their anger."
The anger puzzles him. Kenya's top runners come from various tribes, but their desire to bring glory to Kenya had always crossed the lines that divided them.
"We all run for Kenya," he said. "When you hold that flag, you're holding it as a Kenyan. When you're wearing that uniform, it says Kenya. It doesn't say Kikuyus. It doesn't say Kalenjin. It says Kenya."
There were times during those eight days hiding in Eldoret when Korir thought about giving it all up, thought about running back to Biribiriet one last time to help provide for his family and ride it out.
A phone call to his mother changed his mind.
"My mother said 'Listen to me, I want you to get out of here and go back to America,'" he said. "My mother told me 'esley, we are going to die because we can't do anything, we can't change this world.' She told me that she wants me to come to America because I can get knowledge and I can help change the world. I have a future there. After she told me that, it gave me peace."
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It took some major maneuvering from officials at Louisville, a U.S. consulate in neighboring Uganda and a benevolent friend to help Korir escape.
He was also wired $250 (euro170) from a woman he calls his "American mother." It was enough to hire a policeman to join him and his brother-in-law for the 400-mile (640-kilometer) trip across the border to Uganda and a flight back to America.
A month later, the nightmares have largely ceased. His family is safe. He checks in almost daily on a cell phone he bought for them, one they have to take to a store and pay to have charged because there is no electricity in their home.
Still, the images of what he saw remain fresh. They come to him sometimes during training runs, the horror so acute he abandons all discipline until he finds himself running flat out.
As difficult as it's been, as difficult as it will continue to be, he knows the horrors of what he saw will only propel him forward. He's already planning to return to Kenya _ hopefully over the summer _ on a mission trip to help start the rebuilding process. He wants to set up a foundation either through his church or the university to help his countrymen affected by the uprising.
It's what he feels he has to do. While he was originally wary about telling his story over worries about his family's safety, the whisper told him to talk.
"There comes a time when you think more about Kenya than your own people," he said. "I try to think that if people hear the story of Kenya, they will be able to help. People don't have food. There is no water. There is no help. Maybe people can see this (story) and say they want to help.
"Because Kenya will come back. It may take a long time, but Kenya will come back."


Updated : 2021-05-11 05:15 GMT+08:00