NAIROBI, July 15- Top Kenyan athletes including former world marathon record holders Wilson Kipsang and Tegla Loroupe set off Wednesday on a 22-day “Walk for Peace” against ethnic violence, organizers said.
Cattle rustling and revenge killings between rival communities are common in Kenya’s remote and impoverished northern regions, an area awash with automatic weapons.
The 836-kilometre (520-mile) walk is being organised by former Commonwealth marathon champion John Kelai, who is marching in memory of three of his uncles killed in cattle raids when he was a teenager.
Ethiopian running legend Haile Gebrselassie is expected to join the final stages of the walk, due to end on August 6.
“When people are being killed and driven from their homes, it is a tragedy for all of us,” Gebrselassie said, in a statement released by the walk organizers.
Ethiopia borders northern Kenya, and armed cattle herders launch raids either side of the porous frontier.
The marathon march began in the northern Kenyan town of Lodwar in the volatile Turkana region, heading south for some 40 kilometres every day through the vast Rift Valley to Lake Bogoria.
– ‘Saving lives’ –
The athletes carried an Olympic-style torch, which will be passed from walker to walker as they trek southwards through some of Kenya’s most volatile regions.
“We are going to inspire and engage the young people from the divided communities and help to break the cycle of violence,” Kelai, the 2010 Commonwealth marathon gold medallist, said in a statement.
Former world marathon champions Paul Tergat, Kenyan Olympic steeplechase champion Ezekiel Kemboi and Uganda’s reigning Olympic and world marathon champion, Stephen Kiprotich, have also said they will take part in the walk.
Kiprotich comes from Uganda’s border areas with Kenya, which suffers from cattle rustling and violence.
“Running has brought me a lot of championships, fame, accolades, but what it has not brought me is peace,” Kelai added.
“When I was 13 years of age I lost my three uncles, they were killed by cattle rustlers.”
The athletes, who are encouraging people to join them in their walk, hope to raise over $250,000 (225,000 euros) to fund a peace-building programme, said the Aegis Trust, which works to rebuild communities riven by conflict, notably in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
Aegis Trust, which is helping organise the walk, said the programme “will engage at least 10,000 young people at risk of being drawn into the ethnic violence, saving lives.”
In May, some 75 people were killed in just four days of cattle raids and revenge attacks.
Last year at least 310 people were killed and more than 220,000 fled their homes as a result of inter-communal conflicts attributed to competition over land and water resources, cattle rustling, and struggles over political representation, according to the United Nations.