After his older brother was killed trying to defend the family livestock from poachers, Julius Arile picked up his AK-47 and joined a group of Pokot tribal warriors hell-bent on exacting revenge.
He was just 14.
The group marched through the bushy wilderness of northwestern Kenya and across the border to Uganda until they reached the target of their planned ambush under the cloak of darkness.
“When we got there, the Ugandans were sitting around their—we call it manyatta—of cows,” Arile recalled. “Before we got close, we took a sheet and folded it across our body like a woman, then we took long grass and hid the gun in the pile of long grass and carried it on our head. Then we walked toward the Ugandans in a single queue.
“When those people saw us, they said, ‘Look at those women. What time did they go out to get that grass?’ They didn’t know we were men. When we got past them, we put the grass down, pulled out the guns and started shooting. There were innocent who were dead. No one escaped. When they were dead, we took all of their cows.”
When he was growing up, guns and violence weren’t just a way of life for Arile; they were a means of survival. But a tragic turn scared him straight and the intercession of 1994 ING New York City Marathon champion Tegla Loroupe set him on a path of pacifism. Now the 30-year-old Arile is hoping a victory of his own here will enable him to continue changing lives in Kenya.
“I have changed a lot and I am proud,” Arile said, “but my target has not yet reached the end.”
As a child, Arile’s dream entailed little more than becoming a productive member of his agrarian family. In Kenya, cows are a precious commodity and thus a frequent target of theft, particularly in West Pokot County, which was basically a lawless district on the Ugandan border. In Arile’s eyes, following in family footsteps meant owning a gun.
“At the border, policemen were not around and since the government was not concerned with us, we protected ourselves,” Arile said. “Illicit firearms were easy to find. They were everywhere. Dangerous was like normal. I saw my father and my older brothers carrying guns and using guns, so it was nothing new. When I was good and strong enough to hold it, I bought my first gun. Then I used it to go to Uganda and get cows.”
Cows traded hands between the border Kenyans and Ugandans almost on a monthly basis. “It was like a game. Cows go this way, cows go that way, and somebody dies,” Arile, who claims never to have killed anyone himself, said.
Arile took part in this deadly sport for almost eight years. After each raid, there was naturally payback to be enacted. It was during one of these battles that Arile’s warrior days came to what he termed, “a very sad end.”
“The Ugandans came to us, the same way we went there,” Arile said. “It was good that we were all armed at that time because they came with either the Ugandan army or a militia, we don’t know. When they reached our village, we kicked them out and pushed them back to the Ugandan side. When we reached there, my friend was standing beside me and we were fighting when he got shot in the head. Pieces of brain flew by me like this. When he died, right next to me, I took the gun off my friend and ran. After that, I realized that my life was very short. I thought that if my friend could get shot dead, it could be me next.”
In 2004, Arile put down his gun for good, an act some of his friends understood and others mocked as an act of cowardice. About a year later, Loroupe, who used the fame and fortune she had attained racing abroad to forward the cause of non-violence, brought one of her peace races to their shared hometown of Kapenguria.
“When she announced the race, she said the winner would get 25,000 Kenyan shillings, which is a lot in our place. I knew I had to do it,” Arile said. “I went there and won the race. It was 10 kilometers. I got that cash and it changed my life. I became an ambassador, going to my friends and saying, ‘Look I got five cows and it only took 30 minutes. It’s a lot better than spending days fighting and getting killed while ending up with nothing.’”
In 2006, Arile began his “professional” racing career, competing in local marathons running in shoes with soles cut from old tires. Later that year, he competed outside of Kenya for the first time, coming to New York where he won a road race in Brooklyn. He also used the opportunity to preach non-violence.
“While I was in New York, I addressed the United Nations,” Arile said. “I met [then-UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan and the Kenyan prime minister John Michuki. At the time the Kenyan government had sent troops to West Pokot District to disarm communities. It was very violent. I told him that the only way to disarm people is to get them to give up the guns voluntarily, not through force.”
Eventually, Arile said, the Kenyan government listened and the Ugandan government also cooperated.
“When everyone put their guns down, these crazy warriors came together and listened to what we talked about,” Arile said. “Not wielding a gun is now cool and everybody wants to do what’s cool. There is nowhere to bring a gun in anymore because the government on both sides of the border is very tight. The community is now becoming good people. They don’t want to fight anymore. They want peace. They want to live a better life.”
Arile wants to continue to help his people live prosperous and peaceful lives. Having already played a key role in disarming the tribes in his region, he has set his sights on creating a training camp to foster young running talent and building a school to educate the children of these one-time warriors.
It is with this in mind that Arile will make his long-awaited debut in the ING New York City Marathon on Sunday.
“I thank God for the opportunity to come here because it is not easy to get invited,” said Arile, who finished eighth in the NYC Half in 1:01:38 in March. “I have prayed for this opportunity for three years. When my manager told me that they let me in, I said maybe this is my chance to reach my target. Maybe God can help me get strong enough to win this race so I can achieve my dream.”
Even if he doesn’t, Arile, who owns a 2:12:13 PR, has vowed to continue his mission.
“Anything I win anywhere will go toward making sure I am able to do this in my lifetime,” he said.