A little late with this, but congratulations to former University of Louisville runner Wesley Korir, who won his second straight Los Angeles marathon on Sunday. My favorite part of this L.A. Times story? That Wesley insisted on staying in a Travelodge until he had to move to a fancy, better-located hotel the night before the race.
Wesley Korir has been running his whole life. Born in Kenya and now a cross country All-American at the University of Louisville, he grew up running five miles each way to school every day.
But he never dreamed that one day he’d find himself on the run out of his country, or sprinting through a cornfield to escape a group of his tribesmen trying to force him to fight, or running to confront gunmen about to execute a man from a rival tribe.
Korir (pronounced koh-REER) traveled to his hometown of Kitale, Kenya, in December with a message of peace. He preached in two churches and passed out 30 pairs of shoes he’d collected from UofL teammates to give to the poor. But while he was in Kenya, the country exploded into violence in the days after Christmas because of a disputed election. Korir didn’t return to Louisville until Jan.16, weighed down with worry for his homeland.
The election dispute sparked ethnic violence between rival tribes: the Kikuyu tribe of President Mwai Kibaki the m ost politically powerful tribe in the nation and the Luo tribe of presidential challenger Raila Odinga, who charged that his election defeat was fraudulent. Odinga is supported by a group of smaller tribes, including the Kalenjin, Korir’s tribe.
The death toll from the fighting reached 1,000 this week, with the Red Cross reporting that most of the casualties have been in the Rift Valley, near where Korir was trapped for 10 days.
From the front door of his brother-in-law’s house in nearby Eldoret, scene of some of the worst violence, Korir heard gunfire day and night. He saw homes burning and bodies lying in the street. He feared not only that he might not escape, but that he might not live through it.
“I’ve seen (the movie) ‘Hotel R wanda,’ what happened in R wanda,” he said. “And it was exactly that. . . . People in the street with machetes, killing people from other tribes. It was difficult for me to imagine a country so peaceful got destroyed in a single day. My country, Kenya, really got destroyed in a single day.”
A visit home
Korir went to Kenya bearing gifts for the poor and a Christian message of sharing, telling crowds that celebrating the birth of Jesus should be about giving gifts to the less fortunate, not to each other.
Two days after Christmas, he traveled to Eldoret to help his brother-in-law administer time trials for upcoming races. Those never happened. As tempers flared over election results, violence erupted on Dec.29 .
As tribesmen took to the street with guns, knives, machetes, stones and poisoned arrows, Korir said the homes of many Kikuyu were burned that night. He hid in his brother-in-law’s house for a day, but the next afternoon men with bullhorns and weapons forced others out of their homes to fight.
“We didn’t have any choice,” Korir said. “Either they’d kill us, or we’d go. They didn’t give us a weapon. They gave me only two stones. Which was so weird, because what am I going to do with two stones?
“But in my mind, I knew I was not going to fight, even if they gave me a gun. I don’t even know how to shoot a gun. “
Korir said his experience with the fighting mob lasted no more than 10 minutes. But during that time, he said, he saw three Kikuyu friends hacked to death with machetes. He tried to separate himself from a mob that he said swelled to more than 1,000 men. He described it as a mass of mayhem, with shouting men in front pushing the fight and men behind charging forward into him.
“When they started fighting and killing each other, I witnessed three of my friends killed,” he said. “So I just sneaked out, got into a cornfield and ran as fast as I can.”
Korir said he struggles more with the images of those men being killed than anything else he saw in Kenya. And he saw a great deal more.
“It was really difficult,” he said. “Two of them were runners. . . . They were cut with machetes. So it was difficult. And that’s one thing I’ve been fighting a lot. It gave me a different perspective on life. This life, you can lose it. Those friends of mine never knew that they would not come back.”
Once he and his brother-in-law, whom Korir asked not be identified out of fear for his safety, returned to the house, they again went into uneasy hiding, not knowing whether the men would come back for them.
“I kept asking myself this question: ‘Am I ready to go?'” he said. “Because you never knew. They could come back for you, come take you and kill you. It was just a matter of living minute by minute, second by second.”
But as time passed, Korir said he became more agitated . He began wandering outside the house to talk to his tribesmen, who threatened him when he urged them to stop killing.
“I remember one day I had a big piece of cardboard thinking, ‘I’m going to get it, tie it on myself and start running, saying, let there be peace in Kenya. Pray for peace,'” Korir said.
His brother-in-law stopped him.
“He really had to restrict me to keep me in the house. Because it was so hard for me to see people in my tribe, people that I know, wanting to kill other people. Not only other people, but people that they know. They knew each other. They knew each other. They had been living together for 40 years.”
A day later, New Year’s Eve, Korir walked out the front door, this time with no one there to stop him. He saw a Kikuyu man on his knees not far out of the front gate of the home, about to be shot by Korir’s tribesmen. Korir said he ran toward them shouting, “Don’t kill him!” The gunmen turned to look at him, and the man ran away.
“I don’t know who he was,” Korir said. “I just saw him kneeling down, and I saw a mattress on a sack beside him. And he was raising his hands up saying, ‘Please don’t kill me; please don’t kill me.’ And there’s a guy in front of him ready to shoot him. And I just came.
“I remember in my head thinking, ‘I’m going to jump in front of this guy and let them kill me, if they’re going to kill this guy, because I’ve seen a lot of death. I’m not going to stand there and see these people killed. …I was thinking, ‘Let me die doing the right thing.’ I’d rather die doing the right thing than die doing the wrong thing.”
The incident frightened Korir’s family members so much that they urged him to find a way back to Louisville.
“It just became so difficult, and in that moment I thought, ‘I need to get out of here,'” Korir said.
The violence escalates
On Jan.1, a crowd of Kikuyu, including women and children, fled from pursuing Kalenjin fighters into an Eldoret church. The attackers then locked the doors of the church and set it on fire, killing an estimated 50 people and making international headlines.
Korir visited the site afterward.
“I saw people’s bodies burned, people dead,” he said. “. . . What went through my mind walking through that church is that this is now evil. . . . Crosses were burned there. Jesus’ images were burned there. This was not political.”
Dr. Joe Mamlin, an Indiana University professor who treated victims of the fire, remains in Kenya.
Mamlin, a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize as part of the IU-Kenya Partnership that has grown into one of Africa’s largest HIV/AIDS control efforts, declined to describe in detail his experience in Eldoret in an e-mail this week, saying he needs to devote as much time as possible to helping the needy. But he confirmed the scenes in Eldoret, with fathers being forced to surrender their sons for use in battle and young men being ordered to fight or be killed.
Struggling to return
When Jan.2, Korir’s appointed date to renew his visa, passed with no opportunity to do so, friends in the United States got worried.
One was Jason Dilday, who accompanied Korir on a trip to Kenya last summer as part of a missionary team from Louisville’s Southeast Christian Church. He tried to reach Korir by phone.
“Wesley seemed not like himself,” Dilday said. “He’s always real happy and excited, the kind of person you want to be around. You could tell he was concerned and worried and not quite himself. The second time I talked to him, he kind of broke down all that he had seen. I didn’t know he had been so close to the violence. He just said to keep praying.”
Meanwhile, UofL track coaches went to work. With embassies in Kenya closed because of the chaos, a local attorney helped them get an appointment for Korir in the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda.
“We were worried about him, and all the time I just kept telling him, ‘Stay inside; stay inside,'” track coach Ron Mann said. “…I know he’s a great competitor. I could see him putting himself in harm’s way to protect someone. You could hear a voice of distress.”
It took a 10-hour ride to the U.S. Embassy in Uganda for Korir to get the paperwork to return to the States. Even that trip was an adventure. He had to arrange an escort to the Kenyan border, and the crossing was eased only when a guard was told Korir was a runner. At the moment he crossed, 20 of his friends were gathered at Southeast Christian, praying and trying to reach him by phone.
“Without my coaches, I wouldn’t have made it back,” he said. “Without those prayers.”
He left without reaching his parents’ home in the countryside to say goodbye. On the long ride to Uganda, while passing burnt cars and other evidence of the violence, he reflected on what it meant to leave.
He had been reluctant to go, telling himself, “These are my people. I can’t run away.”
Then he remembered something his mother told him that helped change his mind.
“One day my mom came to me and said, ‘Wesley, we want you to get out of here.’ And I asked her, ‘Why? You guys are here.’
“She said, ‘We don’t have any future. But you have a future.'”
She told him he could use that future to help his country.
Remembering his escape
Opposing runners call Korir “The Politician” because he shakes the hand of every opponent before a race. He said he returned from Kenya with a distaste for politics but a passion for helping the poor. He still worries about his family and whether telling his story might put them at risk. Two prominent Kenyan runners have been killed, and many others met last week in Eldoret saying they and their families have been threatened.
Still, Korir said he’d like to return to Kenya in the summer with a missionary group if conditions permit.
He started classes two weeks late and is training again. But he can’t escape the haunting images.
“Sometimes when I am running, I go back to those times,” he said. “And I look down and realize I’m running far too fast.”
He was greeted when he arrived back in Louisville by teammates and Southeast Christian members singing to him. Dilday drove him home and said Korir kept repeating, “I feel so free.”
But Korir, in some ways, is still running in that cornfield. He has escaped the place but not the memory.
Read more about Wesley and this story in this blog entry from Feb. 2008.