NAIROBI, Kenya, February 19 – Five years since Kenya’s world marathon champion Luke Kibet narrowly escaped death in post-election violence that killed two of his colleagues, the runner is nervous as fresh polls approach.
More than 1,100 people — including two international athletes — were killed in the chaos and ethnic violence that followed Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections.
“We narrowly escaped death,” said Kibet, a brutal scar on his clean-shaven head showing where a rock hurled by rioting youths smashed his skull during the worst outbreak of violence since Kenya’s independence in 1963.
For Kibet, then aged 24 and still basking in the glory of winning the world marathon title in the Japanese city of Osaka in August 2007, the shocking unrest shattered his dreams of continued international success.
The bloodshed destroyed Kenya’s image as a beacon of stability in east Africa, with what began as political riots quickly turning into ethnic killing, and Kibet’s highland hometown of Eldoret was especially hard hit.
Now, with the east Africa nation gearing up for a March 4 vote — the first since the violence — Kibet is determined to remind compatriots of what is at stake if the polls are not peaceful.
“It was a very bad scene, never to be repeated again,” Kibet said, now aged 29, recalling how he helped shelter “many women and their children who fled the violence in my house” for a week.
In Eldoret, home to many of Kenya’s famed long distance runners, youths from the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups clashed, forcing rivals from their homes and attacking others with clubs, spears, arrows or guns.
Kibet, a prison service officer, still appears visibly shaken by one incident when he was forced to shoot his gun in the air to scare off an armed group of youths, who held up his car with four other runners inside.
The athletes, driving from the popular running region of Eldoret — whose high altitude conditions help in stamina training — had been summoned by the national athletics body to come to the capital Nairobi for their own safety.
But armed youths had blocked the road, forcing them to stay put in their car.
“I came out to plead with them that we were just athletes, but they would not budge,” he recalled, adding that he escaped only after firing his pistol.
Other athletes — and hundreds of other ordinary Kenyans — were not so lucky.
Lucas Sang, 45, a member of the Kenyan 4 x 400m relay quartet at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, was hacked to death in the western Kenyan town of Eldoret.
International marathon runner, 34-year old Wesley Ngetich, was killed by a poisoned arrow that pieced his chest in the Transmara district, near the world famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve.
Traumatised, Kibet said he had initially vowed “never to vote again”, but said that over time he had changed his mind and would now cast a ballot.
But Kibet was badly affected by the violence and, combined with the problem of a tendon injury, the once promising star took a three-year-long break from athletics.
He only returned to serious athletics and marathon training last year. In December he came second in the Standard Chartered Singapore marathon, a race he has won twice before, and for which he holds the course record of 2:11:25.
Despite the painful memories of the last election, Kibet is keen to put the past behind him and hopeful that the upcoming polls can be peaceful and that a better future lies ahead for his country.
“I have almost forgotten what happened,” he said. “There is no need of keeping such traumatic events in my mind.”