“This madness cannot go on”
NAIROBI, January 3, 2008 - A former Kenyan Olympic athlete is dead after the country erupted into violence following last week’s disputed presidential elections.
Lucas Sang, a member of the Kenyan 4x400m relay team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, was hacked to death and his body burnt yesterday while walking home in the western town of Eldoret, the town where the violence flared to its worst when around 50 people were burned alive in a church. World Marathon Champion Luke Kibet was also attacked by the mob but managed to survive a machete attack.
Other top Kenyan athletes remain at risk at a high altitude training centre located near the epicentre of the violence. The facility is run by World Half Marathon Champion and record holder, Lorna Kiplagat, now a Dutch citizen, and her husband Pieter Langerhorst.
Elias Makori, Sports Editor of leading Nairobi newspaper The Daily Nation and Secretary General of the Sports Journalists Association of Kenya filed this special report for AIPS from Nairobi.
“This madness cannot be allowed to go on. Horrific tales continue to come out of the killing fields that have erupted after the close of the most contentious General Election ever held in Kenya,” the Daily Nation writes in a front page commentary yesterday, January 2, 2008, as the death toll in the post-election killings rises to close to 300 according to the official count. Many more people are unaccounted for.
About 40 people (some reports put the number closer to 50), mainly women and children, have been burnt to death as they seek refuge in a church in Eldoret, home to Kenya’s world beating distance runners, in the most gruesome wave of killings.
Not even the famous athletes who have brought glory to this east African nation are spared. Their achievements at the World Athletics Championships, Olympic Games, All Africa Games and the big city marathons do not offer any mitigation as the political carnage continues, unabated.
Lucas Sang murdered by mob
The affected stars include Lucas Sang, a retired world class pacesetter and prominent farmer in Eldoret who was hacked to death by a rowdy Kikuyu mob in Kumumu Village near Iten town, an area that, per square kilometre, has produced most of the world’s distance running champions.
“A group of Kikuyu people attacked the Kalenjin near Eldoret, killing 20 people, including Sang,” and eyewitness said in an interview. “That’s how the Kalenjin grouped together and a mob of between 800 and 2,000 Kalenjin youths retaliated, attacking the Kikuyus and killing close to 100 people, including the more than 40 who had taken refuge at the Kenya Assemblies of God church.”
Kenya’s former Boston Marathon champion, one-time world half marathon record holder and world 10,000 metre champion Moses Tanui, retired from active athletics and currently a prominent businessman in Eldoret town, was devastated on learning of Sang’s demise.
“Terrible!,” Tanui said in a telephone interview on Wednesday on learning that Sang was slashed with a machete and his body burnt by the Kikuyu mob. “They have killed Lucas Sang…..things are terrible here and we pray to God that the politicians come together and stop this violence,” was all Tanui could say as further information came through that world marathon champion Luke Kibet was also caught up in a machete attack but was lucky to be alive.
Lorna Kiplagat's high altitude training camp under threat
At the High Altitude Training Centre in Iten, half an hour from Eldoret town, the situation remains tense. The world class camp is run by world half marathon champion and record holder Lornah Kiplagat who was born in the area but currently runs for her adopted country, the Netherlands.
Kiplagat’s manager and husband, Pieter Langerhorst, has, like his wife, spent sleepless nights in their Iten home, making frantic efforts to make sure that the group of foreign athletes training at the camp are flown away to safety as the tension continues to mount.
“The situation is unbelievable here,” Langerhorst tells us on telephone. “Last night (Tuesday, January 1, night) we had to feed some Kalenjin warriors who were hidden in the forest near our house…otherwise they would get hungry, invade our camp and attack us to get the food. We had no option. Things are very, very bad. Its unbelievable!”
Langerhorst has been in touch with the Netherlands embassy in Nairobi and plans have been made to evacuate the foreign athletes currently training there including Bosnian distance running champion, Kenya-born Lucia Kimani and another Kenya-born Dutchwoman Hilda Kibet.
Kibet, Kiplagat and Kimani are among a group of athletes currently preparing in Iten for the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon which will be held on January 18 and which has attracted a world class field that includes men’s marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia.
Due to its high altitude of about 2,400 feet above sea level, Iten is seen as the ideal training venue for distance runners and on any given morning, up to 500 world class athletes can be seen going about their morning runs along with foreigners who have pitched camp in this Rift Valley town and upcoming, unknown fledgling stars.
“The Dutch Government has sent a 35-seater plane and arrangements have been finalised to have the guests at the camp flown, eventually, to Amsterdam,” Langerhorst says. “At the moment all the guests have been flown from the Eldoret Airport to Nairobi but we can still hear some gunfire in Iten town. Eldoret is quiet but still very tense.”
Journalists forced to seek refuge
Journalists have not been spared either with non-Kalenjin scribes based in Eldoret forced to seek refuge in police stations. Houses belonging to non-Kalenjins have been set ablaze and businesses belonging to foreigners looted and destroyed.
Sporting fixtures canceled
Sporting activities continue to grind to a halt with national cross country meetings in Nyahururu (central Kenya) and Eldoret cancelled as athletes are unable to train, let alone travel to these competitions that form Kenya’s build-up to March’s World Cross country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Africa’s soccer giants Cameroon have been forced to cancel their training camp in Nairobi because of the violence. The Cameroon team was due to camp in Nairobi from January 5 to prepare for the African Nations Cup tournament that starts in Ghana on January 20 but their coach, Otto Pfister, was quoted as saying that they would train in Burkina Faso instead as Nairobi continues to remain tense and hostile to foreigners.
National Cross Country meetings put on hold
“We cannot risk having the national cross country meetings until the situation returns to normal,” Athletics Kenya secretary general David Okeyo said in a statement late on Tuesday. “The situation is bad and athletes will not be able to travel. We will monitor the situation before we can advise on the next step forward.
Although the fighting in Kenya is largely between the majority Kikuyu tribe of President Mwai Kibaki and the Luo tribe of opposition leader Mr Raila Odinga, other smaller tribes have taken advantage of the melee to settle old scores.
The clashes started at the weekend immediately after the Electoral Commission of Kenya announced, amid huge tension that President Kibaki had won the fiercely contested elections, polling 4,584,721 votes to Odinga’s 4,352,993. Journalists were promptly ushered out of the ECK offices in Nairobi after which President Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in for another five-year term, a move that sparked off countrywide violence.
The worst affected areas, besides Eldoret, are the other western Kenya towns of Iten, Kakamega Kitale, Kericho and Mr Odinga’s home town of Kisumu were unprecedented scenes of looting left the nation tense.
In Nairobi, the violence was at its worst in the slum areas of Kibera, Kangemi, Mathare and Korogocho which house most of the Kenyan capital’s close to three million residents.
Most of Kenya’s world class athletes are from the Kalenjin tribe but the Kikuyu tribe has also produced a fair share of the country’s elite athletes. Kenya’s Kikuyu world champions include world marathon champion and multiple Boston Marathon winner Catherine Ndereba, world half marathon record holder Samuel Karanja Wanjiru, 2007 world 10,000 metres bronze medallist Martin Irungu Mathathi and former world 10,000 metres world champion Charles Kamathi.
A report by the European Union Observer Mission on Wednesday declared that Kenya’s General Election fell short of democratic standards. The mission’s head Alexander Lambsdorff said EU officials encountered difficulties in obtaining results from Returning Officers at several polling stations.
As the nation continues to plunge into a grave humanitarian crisis, Kenya’s world class athletes have temporarily been derailed from their pre-season training and with their families greatly affected, it will take a huge act of bravery for them to get out of the crisis and maintain their place high in the pecking order of global athletics.