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15 Dec 2007 21:46
Crops rot in the fields, farms and schools are abandoned, the black hulks of burned houses dot the landscape.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed and many women raped.
On a dirt road climbing up through green countryside, a heavily armed patrol of police troops stares nervously into the thick bush, wary of a militia ambush.
Burundi? Congo? Rwanda? No, the scene is being played out in Kenya, a country usually seen as a haven of stability in a region scarred by genocide, wars and famine.
Here in a beautiful landscape of rolling hills in the west of the country, a dirty and under-reported war is being fought far from the international spotlight.
While Kenya has made major economic strides in recent years and has growing democratic credentials, insecurity is one of the biggest concerns of voters ahead of a December 27 national election.
Violent death is commonplace across the nation, with the murderous Mungiki gang, deadly raids by rustlers, ethnic and political attacks taking hundreds of lives.
As elections have done ever since the first multi-party vote in 1992, the campaign has worsened the mayhem.
But the land war in the Mount Elgon region bordering Uganda has deeper roots and has caused the greatest bloodshed.
An allocation of government land in July 2006 unleashed a war between the Ndorobo and Soy clans of the Sabaot ethnic group that has killed about 300, mostly civilians.
More than 60 000 terrorised people have fled their homes in an area originally populated by 170 000.
A Reuters team visiting the worst-hit Kopsiro division recently saw the blackened remains of at least 15 huts which locals said had been burned by police hunting a militia that is fighting against the land scheme.
As the police combat unit moved away, men emerged from hiding and said two children and an 18-year-old youth had been shot dead during a police raid the previous day.
The father of one of them, eight-year-old Dan Moses, said he ran away when police arrived and when he returned his son, who had been with his grandmother, was shot through the eye.
“Now we are just left to wipe the tears from our hearts,” he said. Authorities denied the killings.
Opponents say the land was divided corruptly and favoured the Ndorobos and government supporters, at the expense of the more numerous Soy, many of whom were evicted from areas they had farmed for 30 years.
The 2006 Chepyuk resettlement awarded plots to only 1 700 families out of 7 500 applicants.
A Soy militia, called the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), has killed Ndorobos and anybody associated with the government, including the brother of the local MP.
The conflict has now escalated, with criminal gangs, revenge killings, political manipulation and a tough police campaign to defeat the SLDF adding to the suffering.
Aid workers say the civilian population is caught between the SLDF and the police who are widely accused, despite official denials, of burning the houses of alleged militia sympathisers.
“The police beat people for information and then they are beaten by the SLDF for talking,” said one NGO worker.
Ahmed Abdi, head of disaster management for the Kenyan Red Cross, said the situation was worsening ahead of the vote.
“There are daily incidents where there are targeted killings of people deemed to be collaborating with the government,” mostly by the militia, but also regular police torching of houses, he told Reuters.
“We are seeing continuous daily displacement of people.
We are seeing continuous killing.
‘Below human dignity’
“The current situation has deteriorated below human dignity,” said Remi Carrier, head of the Médécins Sans FrontiÃ¨res (MSF) mission in Kenya.
District Officer Gideon Ombongi, second highest government official in the Mount Elgon area, denied the police had killed anyone and blamed all violence on the SLDF.
“The hooligans themselves are burning houses, not security agents ... it is criminals targeting their neighbours,” he said, accusing some of the population of harbouring militia members.
“We cannot help them if they are defending the criminals and blaming the innocent police,” he told Reuters.
But Red Cross volunteer David Torombo, standing in the ashes of a hamlet where 12 houses were burned, said: “It is the police that did this. Criminals are not found in this area. They are very far away in the bush.”
Nearby, ashes smouldered in the deserted shells of two mud and wattle huts where five families lived until the previous day.
The crisis has disrupted normal life in Mount Elgon with 10 000 children unable to go to school and farmland idle.
A primary school in Kapkirwok lay deserted with children’s work scattered on the mud floor and a hole through the blackboard. Several teachers have died in the area.
Three farmers who tried to tend their crops were murdered by militia, Ombongi said. “They did not last 10 minutes.”
Now an area that once exported produce to Uganda and other parts of Kenya is dependent on 540 tonnes of food aid each month, the Red Cross says.
There is little sign of a solution. Many locals believe the land allocation must be reversed but Ombongi says the conflict will only end when the SLDF are defeated.
“The solution is for the militia to stop fighting and the public to give the government information,” he said. - Reuters
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