When Rose Nathike Lokonyen takes to the Olympic track in Tokyo this week it will be the culmination of a journey that began with her running, alongside her family, from the village of Chukudum in South Sudan.
As she ran in the dark, barefoot and aged eight, her neighbours were killed by armed militants. It was 2002 and the Second Sudanese war had ravaged the country for two decades. It was one of the longest civil wars in history, and would lead to approximately two million deaths – through fighting, slaughter, disease and starvation. Four million people would be displaced.
On Thursday, Rose will – for the second time – compete in the 800m race at the Olympics. In 2016, she was part of the first team of 10 refugee Olympians; now she stands as part of 29.
Back in 2002, Rose, her parents, 10 younger siblings and a handful of neighbours escaped to their neighbouring town. Wellwishers provided them with shelter until they could make it across the border to Kenya. Because of the fighting, travel was difficult, but soon they arrived in Kakuma refugee camp.
“For me, I felt safe, I had escaped from the danger,” Rose says.
Within a week, space had been found for Rose’s family to have a place of their own, and by 2003 the children were enrolled in primary school. The sprawling shanty town in north-western Kenya now houses nearly 200,000 refugees, but it’s grown exponentially in recent years, only surpassing its 58,000 capacity in 2014. The settlement was established at the onset of war in 1992 following the arrival of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” – over 20,000 Sudanese boys, most aged six or seven, who fled to escape death or induction into the northern army.
Aged 14, Rose faced a new challenge – juggling her education with the duty of caring for her younger siblings. Her parents had travelled back to South Sudan to find her grandparents. “They couldn’t find them, they were killed,” Rose says. “I managed to take care of my younger siblings, the responsibility was on me. I am the first born.” It would be another nine years before her parents returned to Kakuma camp, all the while Rose ran the household.
And then, a school competition. A teacher prodded Rose to take part in a 10-kilometre race. She ran, once more, barefoot. “I had not been training. It was the first time for me to run, and I came number two,” she says. “I was very surprised!”
Her talent had been spotted. In 2014 the national trials came along; Rose came in first place. Shortly after, another race, 20-kilometres, in which Rose came second. “I was told: ‘you will go to Rio.’ I didn’t know where Rio was, I thought it was in Kenya.”
With under eight months of training under her belt, Rose, a track and field athlete, was selected as one of 10 in the Olympics’ first ever refugee team. She joined 11,000 fellow athletes in Brazil and waved the flag at the opening ceremony. The Refugee Olympic team was created by the International Olympic Committee to allow athletes to keep competing even if they have been forced to leave their home countries.