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Kenyan athlete tells of horror of arrest, torture by DRC ‘cops, military’ over M23 rebel tag

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Kennedy Lilan, a Kenyan marathoner who was detained by soldiers in the DR Congo explains his ordeal during an interview at his home in Jua Kali, Uasin Gishu County. 

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya| Nation Media Group

A Kenyan marathoner who was arrested and detained by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) security officials for 12 hours on accusations of being a rebel fighter has told the Sunday Nation about the nightmare he thought would end in death.

Mr Kennedy Kiproo Lilan said he was forced by the DRC soldiers to wear military uniform, interrogated on video on accusations of being a member of the M23 rebel group that operates in the East of the country.

Mr Lilan’s World Athletics profile names him as Kennedy Kiptoo Lilan, with the Kiproo appearing on his identity card, but his preferred race names are his first and last.

The clip that showed the traumatised athlete being interrogated was then shared on social media alongside a separate audio recording that alleged some Kenyans had been conscripted into the rebel group.

Unknown to him, his national identity card was also published online as “proof” that he was a Kenyan foreign fighter in the volatile DRC region.

Mr Lilan said the soldiers maliciously sent the video clips around the world claiming that he was among M23 rebel fighters that had been killed in fighting in the country even though they were aware that he had run the Congo River Marathon that weekend.

He has won four city marathons in his career since 2011, including Khon Kaen, Bangkok, Ipoh (Half Marathon), and Kuala Lumpur.

Mr Lilan, the Standard Chartered Kuala Lumpur Marathon 2012 champion, said he was swarmed by heavily armed DRC military soldiers minutes after he had checked into Kinshasa. He said he was terrorised and robbed of money, his mobile phone and identification documents.

He, however, went on to run with bib number 4242 and won the Congo River Marathon after clocking 02:22:49.3. By the time of going to press he was yet to receive the prize money that he was entitled to despite promises from the race organisers.

Mr Lilan, left Kenya by road through Malaba border into Uganda on a bus on May 29, before boarding a DRC-bound flight at Entebbe Airport. He had been invited to participate in the Congo River Marathon.

Taken on arrival

He arrived in Kinshasa on Friday morning and was escorted to a hotel by a guide assigned to him by the race organisers.

“The race organisers sent someone to pick me up from the airport in a taxi and I along with three other people were booked into a hotel in Kinshasa. We waited until 3pm when we were told to go downstairs for a meal. I was shown somewhere to sit outside because it was very hot in the restaurant.

"Just when the meal had been placed in front of me, a contingent of heavily armed soldiers came and started chattering in a language I didn’t understand. I tried to ask what was going on but we couldn’t communicate with each other because of the language barrier,” he said.

He added that the soldiers were shouting at him and since he did not understand what they were saying, he kept quiet.

“One of the people who spoke English and Swahili asked me how I had come to DRC and I explained to them that I had been invited to participate in the Congo River Marathon but they could hear none of it.,” Mr Lilan said..

He explained that he had only come for the marathon that was scheduled for the weekend and had a flight back home on Sunday morning but the soldiers insisted that he was a soldier who was working with the M23 rebel group.


Scared for his life, Mr Lilan refused to leave the hotel premises until they told him what crime he was being accused of.

However, after more than an hour and half, he agreed to accompany them to a military camp where he said he was ordered to empty his pockets and robbed of $500, Sh30,000, his bank ATM cards and national identification card among other items.

Mr Lilan says that all along, the soldiers wanted him to admit that he was a member of the M23 rebel group but he declined, insisting that he only went to DRC to participate in the Congo River Marathon then return to Kenya.

“I was interrogated by someone who appeared to be their leader and reported that the junior soldiers had robbed me of my money and other property. He ordered the soldiers to return what had been taken from me but only Sh30,000 was given back to the leader.

"They kept the 500 dollars. By this time. I was scared because it was obvious that even the leaders could not control their soldiers. When they heard me report to their leader that I had been robbed, they accused me of being a trained soldier who had come to join M23 rebels,” the marathoner said.

He explains that he was then forced to dress in military uniform by the heavily armed soldiers and for over eight hours they harassed and taunted him before eight soldiers forced him into a private car that drove him back to the hotel.

The soldiers then parked the car in which he was being held outside the hotel for an hour before forcing him to open the room at gunpoint. They ransacked the room and took his athletics kit including running shoes, a pair of shorts and T-shirts.

While some of the soldiers apologised for what they were taking him through, others continued to taunt him and even stole his mobile phone. His attempt to raise the alarm was met with ridicule.

The now petrified athlete was left in the hotel room by the soldiers. But his tribulations had just begun.

More robbery

At midnight, soldiers wearing different uniforms stormed into his room after breaking a glass window pane and kicking in the door and for an hour turned the room upside down before stealing the few clothes he had remained with.

Mr Lilan and his three colleagues, one of them Kenyan female athlete Jane Rotich, were frog marched to a military camp and held for four hours before being bundled into a Land Rover and driven around Kinshasa with several stopovers as the soldiers claimed they were going to slaughter them.

“We were driven around Kinshasa and at each stop, the soldiers kept saying we would be imprisoned for life or slaughtered. They kept us up until 8am before we were taken to the main prison for detention. There we were informed that if no one comes to bail us out, we would be killed,” he says.

After some hours, the soldiers finally called the race organiser who vouched for the athletes and reassured them but the soldiers continued to hold them until 3pm when they were escorted to a hotel near the race venue and instructed not to venture out.

The now sleepy and tired athletes were given numbers for the race with no shoes or kits and kept in seclusion in a room.

“We were too scared to sleep. We woke up at 5am. I went for the race and won and requested that we be immediately taken to the airport for our flight back home,” he said.

The traumatised athlete believes that his tribulations might have been prompted by a plot to stop him from winning the marathon. 

Mr Lilan said he has been contacted by a Foreign Affairs ministry official but is yet to receive any help to get to the bottom of the matter.