Despite Kenya peace deal, ethnic tensions simmer

Nearly three months after the worst massacre of Kenya’s post-election violence, children’s shoes and charred clothes remain in the ashes of a rural church where about 30 people were burned to death.

Wreaths of dried-out flowers lie where a mob set fire to the Assemblies of God building with 100 or so terrified villagers cowering inside. A cow nibbles grass around fallen yellow tape reading: ”Crime Scene, Do Not Cross.”

All around the church, torched and trashed homes litter the countryside outside the western town of Eldoret, one of the epicentres of violence that killed at least 1 200 people and uprooted 300 000 others after Kenya’s December 27 election.

President Mwai Kibaki and his main challenger, Raila Odinga, have since made their peace, burying their dispute over who won in a power-sharing agreement. They have taken tea and even watched golf together at a colonial-era country club.

But on the ground, wounds from the worst bloodletting in the East African nation since independence in 1963 remain sore and many fear violence could erupt again if the deeper roots of the troubles are not tackled.

Communities are suspicious of one another. Tens of thousands of people still live as refugees. And there has been a massive population shift as Kenyans from different tribes return to the safety of their ancestral heartlands.

Less than a kilometre from the burned church in Kiambaa village, police are building a new base to prevent repetitions of the attacks by Kalenjins — who are in the majority in the Eldoret area — on Kikuyus, members of Kibaki’s ethnic group.

”We will hold the peace, and we will catch the perpetrators,” one policeman said, nailing planks to new huts.


A few nervous-looking Kikuyus are back to check their plots.

”Some fear to return, some want to sell their land, some might come back and re-settle here if there is peace,” said Francis Waweru (23). His sister scorched her arm escaping from the church and has gone far away to the Kikuyu town of Limuru.

”It is hard to forget,” he said, standing next to the church and describing how hundreds of Kalenjin warriors barred the refugees inside before burning the building and hacking those who tried to escape with machetes.

Down the road, locals have daubed a new name in their tribal language — Kipnyiket — over the Kikuyu word Kiambaa. Authorities say the perpetrators are among hundreds they have arrested nationwide. They plan a memorial at the church site.

On another side of Eldoret, scores of houses and shops are reduced to blackened rubble in scenes more reminiscent of war-riven neighbours Somalia and Sudan.

Huge boulders beside the highway also bear witness to the gangs who took over the area in January. Armed with machetes and bows-and-arrows, they had set up roadblocks to hunt Kikuyus.

”Of course we were angry. They stole the election in front of our eyes,” one jobless 28-year-old Kalenjin man said.

”Now power is supposed to be shared 50-50 but they are not willing to share really,” he added, echoing a widespread accusation among Kenya’s non-Kikuyus that Kibaki’s community has monopolised power and wealth.

Another Kalenjin man chided a visiting reporter, saying the media — like Kibaki and the police — had focused on deaths of Kikuyus around Eldoret, but not the killing of members of other communities elsewhere around Kenya.

”What about the house burned in Naivasha with 15 people inside? You don’t talk about what the Kikuyus did,” he said.

”There are no Kikuyus living round here any more. If they come back, it will depend on the 50-50 deal, if it works. Then if they return and are friendly with us, it will be OK.”

Underlying problems

According to the power-sharing deal, Odinga is set to become prime minister although wrangling remains over other posts.

Further down the line, Kenya’s politicians will also have to overhaul the Constitution and discuss underlying problems such as land and inequality that were laid bare by the dispute over Kibaki’s re-election last December.

At Eldoret showground, 15 000 refugees — almost all Kikuyus — live in tents crammed together on the field.

They are either too scared to return home, have nothing to go back to or are waiting for some way of travelling to their community’s heartland in central Kenya.

”Power-sharing has brought peace to the people above, but not to us,” said pastor Gideon Mwangi, whose house in Eldoret was torched and whose family fled to Naivasha.

”We are willing to go back, but only when there is real peace. There are still threats going on in the villages.”

Refugee leaders are petitioning for compensation for destroyed properties, stolen livestock and lost crops.

Some Kikuyus in the Eldoret area have, however, returned to their former lives. In the centre of town, several dozen stick together for security in streets where they work as mechanics and labourers fixing minibuses.

Joseph Gitau (23) was born in the area, saw his father killed with a poisoned arrow during inter-ethnic fighting in 1997, and admits taking up a machete to face Kalenjin gangs in January. One day, he saw seven fellow Kikuyus decapitated.

Yet he has returned to work to help feed his mother, and ten brothers and sisters. And he has no intention of returning to a tribal homeland he does not know.

”There, I have no job, no land, nothing. What could I do?” — Reuters

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