Ethnic Violence in Rift Valley Tears Kenya Apart
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
The New York Times
January 27, 2008
A Luo mother and daughter fleeing the fighting in Nakuru waited to be evacuated by the Kenyan Red Cross on Saturday.
NAKURU, Kenya — Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, may seem calm, but anarchy reigns just two hours away.
In Nakuru, furious mobs rule the streets, burning homes, brutalizing people and expelling anyone not in their ethnic group, all with complete impunity.
On Saturday, hundreds of men prowled a section of the city with six-foot iron bars, poisoned swords, clubs, knives and crude circumcision tools. Boys carried gladiator-style shields and women strutted around with sharpened sticks.
The police were nowhere to be found. Even the residents were shocked.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said David Macharia, a bus driver.
One month after a deeply flawed election, Kenya is tearing itself apart along ethnic lines, despite intense international pressure on its leaders to compromise and stop the killings.
Nakuru, the biggest town in the beautiful Rift Valley, is the scene of a mass migration now moving in two directions. Luos are headed west, Kikuyus are headed east, and packed buses with mattresses strapped on top pass one another in the road, with the bewildered children of the two ethnic groups staring out the windows at one another.
In the past 10 days, dozens of people have been killed in Molo, Narok, Kipkelion, Kuresoi, and now Nakuru, a tourist gateway which until a few days ago was considered safe.
In many places, Kenya seems to be sliding back toward the chaos that exploded Dec. 30, when election results were announced and the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner over Raila Odinga, the top opposition leader, despite widespread evidence of vote rigging.
The tinder was all there, even before the voting started. There were historic grievances over land and deep-seated ethnic tensions, with many ethnic groups resenting the Kikuyus, Mr. Kibaki’s group, because they have been the most prosperous for years.
A Kikuyu-owned store in Nakuru was set on fire by Luos, after Kikuyus had burned down Luo homes and businesses.
The disputed election essentially served as the spark, and opposition supporters across Kenya vented their rage over many issues toward the Kikuyus and other ethnic groups thought to have supported Mr. Kibaki.
In the Rift Valley, local elders organized young men to raid Kikuyu areas and kill people in a bid to drive the Kikuyus off their land. It worked, for the most part, and over the past month, tens of thousands of Kikuyus have fled.
More than 650 people, many of them Kikuyus, have been killed. Many of the attackers are widely believed to be members of the Luo and Kalenjin ethnic groups.
What is happening now in Nakuru seems to be revenge. The city is surrounded by spectacular scenery, with Lake Nakuru and its millions of flamingos drawing throngs of tourists each year. The city has a mixed population, like much of Kenya, split among several ethnic groups including Kikuyus, Luos, Luhyas and Kalenjins.
On Thursday night, witnesses and participants said, bands of Kikuyu men stormed into the streets with machetes and homemade weapons and began attacking Luos and Kalenjins.
Paul Karanja, a Kikuyu shopkeeper in Nakuru, explained it this way: “We had been so patient. For weeks we had watched all the buses and trucks taking people out of the Rift Valley, and we had seen so many of our people lose everything they owned. Enough was enough.”
In a Nakuru neighborhood called Free Area, hundreds of Kikuyu men burned down homes and businesses belonging to Luos, Mr. Odinga’s ethnic group. The Luos who refused to leave were badly beaten, and sometimes worse. According to witnesses, a Kikuyu mob forcibly circumcised one Luo man who later bled to death. Circumcision is an important rite of passage for Kikuyus but is not widely practiced among Luos.
The Luos and the Kalenjins, who have been aligned throughout the post-election period, then counterattacked, resulting in a citywide melee with hundreds wounded and as many as 50 people killed.
By Friday night, the Kenyan military was deployed for the first time to intervene. Local authorities also placed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on Nakuru, another first.
Many people in Free Area, which is now almost totally Kikuyu, say it will be difficult to make peace.
“We’re angry and they’re angry,” said John Maina, a stocky butcher, whose weapon of choice on Saturday was a three-foot table leg with exposed screws. “I don’t see us living together any time soon.”
That is the reality across much of Kenya, and it seems to be nothing short of so-called ethnic cleansing. Mobs in Eldoret, Kisumu, Kakamega, Burnt Forest and countless other areas, including some of the biggest slums in Nairobi, have driven out people from opposing ethnic groups. Many neighborhoods that used to be mixed are now ethnically homogeneous.
Kof Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, visited the Rift Valley on Saturday. He called it “nerve-racking.”
“We saw people pushed from their homes and farms, grandmothers, children and families uprooted,” said Mr. Annan, who is in Kenya trying to broker negotiations between Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga.
He called for the Kenyan government to investigate the attackers and increase security.
On Saturday, Kenyan soldiers in Free Area escorted Luos back to their smoldering homes and stood guard with their assault rifles as the people sifted through the ruins and salvaged whatever they could before leaving.
Many Luos said they had no choice but to go to far western Kenya, the traditional Luo homeland, just as many Kikuyus who have been displaced said they would resettle in the highlands east of Nakuru, their traditional homeland.
Mr. Macharia, the bus driver, who is Kikuyu, conceded that many Kikuyus were feeling vengeful. But he said it does not mean they actually want to fight. “I saw it myself,” he said. “The elders called ‘Charge!’ but not all the boys charged.”
Still, enough did charge that the Luos who used to live in Free Area were not taking any chances. On Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people carrying trunks on their heads and bags of blankets streamed toward a government office that was protected by a few soldiers.
Nancy Aloo, a Luo, was guiding four frightened young children.
“God made all of us,” Ms. Aloo said. “We need his help.”