FROM his farm that morning, James Ruara could see houses burning in the distance. He knew the dreaded tribal clashes had come to his area, Olenguruone, in the heart of Kenya's Rift Valley.
At 4 p.m. that afternoon, the violence reached his front door.
Hundreds of screaming Kipsigi warriors stormed the area, armed with bows, arrows, and small axes. ``They surrounded us,'' Mr. Ruara vividly recalls. ``We tried to resist, but it was too large a group. We had to surrender. They ordered us to kneel down. We pleaded with them.''
Ruara, a retired school teacher, and his neighbors are members of Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. The Kipsigi are one of several small tribes collectively known as the Kalenjin, the group to which President Daniel arap Moi belongs.
``They told us to go back to Central Province [from where he and many other Kikuyus had migrated]. They told us to sing praises to President Moi.''
That was in April 1992. Seventy-six people, mostly Kikuyus, were killed in several days of attacks in Olenguruone. Between late 1991 and December 1992, when Kenya held its first multiparty elections in more than two decades, at least 1,000 people were killed and 200,000 displaced in the worst ethnic violence since independence from Britain in 1963, according to government and independent analysts.
The vote has come and gone, but tribal passions have been so aroused that clashes continue to break out. And while the number killed is considerably less than in either the former Yugoslavia or South Africa, Kenya's plight raises the same knotty questions about what triggers ethnic conflicts, what keeps them going, and how they can be stopped.
Interviews with survivors, international human rights advocates, Kenyan attorneys, church leaders, and government officials, along with several studies, lead to the same conclusion: Tribal clashes in Kenya are the result of political manipulation of long-simmering ethnic tensions over land and power.
``Ethnicity is a very important part of Kenyan life,'' says Binaifer Nowrojee, a Kenyan human rights lawyer based in Boston. But ``it's been manipulated'' by politicians. Rise of multiparty politics
For nearly three decades, Kenya experienced remarkable stability, its political landscape marked by nonviolence under single-party rule. Before the clashes began, most Kalenjin and other ethnic groups were getting along fairly well with each other, according to members of various tribes. Kikuyus bought livestock and milk from Kalenjin, while Kalenjin bought corn and beans from Kikuyus. Intermarriages were frequent.
But that began to change in the latter half of the 1980s as churches, opposition figures, and some individuals in the political establishment started challenging the increasingly repressive measures of the government. By the end of 1991, the international community had added to the pressure, freezing aid in November that year pending democratic and economic reforms. President Moi bowed to the pressure, legalizing opposition parties and calling for multiparty elections.
By then, the clashes had started.
Kalenjin began attacking Kikuyus, Luo, and Luyha, running them off their land and burning their homes. Kalenjin politicians, critics claim, whipped up a fighting fervor among their people. They promised land that belonged to members of other groups to the Kalenjin and warned them that a non-Kalenjin government would confiscate their land. Mr. Moi's critics accuse him of supporting the Kalenjin attacks to solidify Kalenjin political strength in the Rift Valley Province.
Ms. Nowrojee, the Kenyan attorney, is a consultant for the Washington-based human rights group Africa Watch. She and a colleague recently completed an extensive investigation of the clashes. They put responsibility for the violence squarely on the government's shoulders.
Nowrojee says their preliminary conclusions are:
* There ``was and is definite government involvement'' in the clashes, in terms of ``provoking and instigating inflammatory [ethnic] statements and not condemning the violence.''
* The government has given more police protection to Kalenjin than to non-Kalenjin in clash areas.
* There have been few prosecutions of record relating to participation in the clashes.
The government strongly denies that it has supported the violence. Some Kalenjin politicians counter that Kikuyus have mounted attacks against Kalenjin, and that Kikuyu opposition leaders have made tribalist remarks.
Nowrojee, however, notes a difference between Kalenjin and Kikuyu strikes. ``When non-Kalenjin attack, they're like vigilantes, wearing their own clothes. But when Kalenjin attack, they're organized in large numbers, and they're obviously trained and uniformed.''
Eye-witnesses of such attacks support her observations. Ruara, the school teacher, and a number of other Kikuyu survivors say they saw government helicopters land near Kalenjin ``warriors'' during the raids.
Other studies have reached similar conclusions. In its report last year, a Kenyan parliamentary panel concluded that ``some officers in the provincial administration directly participated or encouraged the clashes.''
Ishmael Chelanga, Rift Valley provincial commissioner, is one of those accused of helping to instigate the clashes. ``The ordinary Kikuyu was not to blame; the ordinary Kalenjin was not to blame,'' he says. ``Most of the clashes were politically calculated.
Mr. Chelanga blames what he terms a Kikuyu-dominated Kenyan press for ``creating a picture that Kalenjin were attacking Kikuyus.''
But the violence has deeper roots. The clashes have taken place mostly in the Rift Valley, a crescent of fertile farmland and political power. Rift Valley Province is allocated 44 of the 188 elected seats in Parliament, more than any other province. Its land has been a point of contention between Kalenjin and Kikuyus for most of Kenya's post-independence period. `White Highlands'
The Rift Valley was traditionally the home of pastoral groups, including the Maasai, Kalenjin, Samburu, and Turkana. During the colonial period, white settlers were drawn to its fertile land. They staked out vast farms and brought in Kissi, Luhya, and Kikuyus to work their fields.
After independence in 1963, British settlers in these so-called White Highlands began to sell off their lands. This provided President Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, with an answer to one of the most pressing problems of the day: population growth and landlessness.
In the latter half of the 1960s, Kikuyus left their overcrowded homeland in Central Province in droves to work and live on new, large-scale cooperatives and commercial farms in the Rift Valley. Mr. Kenyatta encouraged this, often holding public ceremonies in which he turned over large farms to the landless.
As British-held land became more and more scarce, ownership became increasingly troublesome, especially for the Kalenjin, who saw diminishing opportunities in their own areas. Tensions between Kikuyus and Kalenjin escalated, so Kenyatta turned to a young Kalenjin leader, Daniel arap Moi.
The two formed an alliance in the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU), giving the Kalenjin greater state assistance in purchasing land. But it also enabled the Kikuyus to keep migrating, a fact the Kalenjin would not forget when Moi became president in 1978.
Under the single-party structure, Moi has been able to placate his ethnic constituency. Members of other groups living in Kalenjin areas were expected to stay out of politics.
But Kalenjin provincial leaders worried that, in a multiparty state, they would lose their hold on power. Rift Valley Commissioner Chelanga says, the Kalenjin ``don't expect [non-Kalenjin] to vie for political leadership'' in Kalenjin territories.
Moi's critics charge that he allowed his aides to make tribalist statements in 1991 to solidify Kalenjin power ahead of multiparty elections.
Moi was ``trying to associate tribal clashes with multiparty [politics],'' building a case that the only way to keep peace was with a single party, says Stephen Mbugwa, a Roman Catholic priest and teacher at St. Joseph's Seminary in the town of Molo, a focal point of the violence. Political differences
But one government official denies that Kalenjin resentment over land losses in the Rift Valley led to the clashes. Instead, ``political differences, suspicions ... and rumor-mongering'' between groups during the lead-up to multiparty elections, sparked the outbursts, he says.
Chelanga, echoing Moi's long-held contention that ethnic fragmentation was the inevitable result of multipartyism in an African state, says ethnic polarization is natural. That ``will never change; polarization will take place,'' he argues.
In the end, parties and voting patterns in the December 1992 election were roughly along ethnic lines. Moi won reelection with a 36 percent plurality against three major rivals, and KANU won 36 of the 44 parliamentary seats from Rift Valley.
In the nine months since the ballot, ethnic violence has continued, including attacks last month. ``I think there's a punitive aspect,'' Nowrojee says, ``to punish ethnic groups who have not given political backing to Moi.'' She claims that Moi, through his aides, promised Kalenjin that the land they seized would be theirs.
The clashes have forced thousands of mostly non-Kalenjin farmers to abandon their land in the Rift Valley. This has cut food production, further damaging Kenya's economy, which is already reeling from high inflation and government corruption.
Nowrojee estimates that 250,000 to 300,000 Kenyans have been displaced by the clashes. Many of them, primarily non-Kalenjin, are still afraid to return home, and some were killed when they tried, she says. The National Council of Churches of Kenya estimates similar numbers.
Many of the displaced are living in miserable conditions.
``People have stayed a long time away from their homes,'' says Ernest Murimi, executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru, provincial capital of Rift Valley Province. ``They are really desperate.''
``It's very cold; and we don't have much food,'' says Susan Wajiko, one of several hundred displaced Kikuyus who have been living in a drafty warehouse in Elburgon since they were attacked by Kalenjin in April 1992.
The survivors recount bitter memories of the attacks. ``They killed my husband in my presence - with 18 arrows,'' says Peris Wanjiru, an elderly Kikuyu.
Plight of the displaced
Many of the displaced have managed to rent small, one-room dwellings, though with no water, electricity, or heat. Some of the children of displaced families in the various clash areas have died as a result of poor housing, a poor diet, and lack of adequate medical care, relief workers say. Most of the displaced can no longer afford school fees for their children. Some of the men do farm labor or other odd jobs, but typically earn the equivalent of 50 cents a day.
The Kenyan government says it has provided about $200,000 worth of food and other aid, which one government official acknowledges ``isn't much'' compared with the needs. But Kenyan church officials working with displaced Kikuyus say very little of the aid has reached people in their areas. Private donations have also been scarce, church officials say.
What is needed to end the conflicts and get people home again, according to Kenyan officials, church workers, and others, includes stepped up police patrols in conflict areas; more prosecution of offenders - regardless of which group they belong to; greater dialogue between traditional ethnic leaders; and a halt to tribalist rhetoric by politicians on all sides.
Some individuals are more specific. It is up to ``the president himself'' to reestablish the peace between Kikuyus and Kalenjin, says Sister Aquillina Mwithi, who heads St. Peter's Girls Primary boarding school in Elburgon. She has been distributing food and aid to several thousand displaced people here for more than a year.
The government has, in fact, made efforts recently. Last month, 49 Kalenjin were sentenced to prison terms of up to 10 years for their part in clashes. The sentencing came amid growing foreign criticism of the clashes. Moi also took the unusual step of sealing off the Molo area with security personnel, even denying diplomats the right to enter the clash area, presumably to stop outside agitators from coming in. Neighbor against neighbor
Recounting their trials, both Kalenjin and Kikuyu survivors say the attackers and victims were sometimes neighbors. Attacks have led to counterattacks. A clergyman in Molo says possibly as many as 200 Kalenjin were killed by Kikuyus in counterattacks in nearby rural areas after the April 1992 Kalenjin attack on Olenguruone.
Some Kikuyus also attacked Kalenjin living here. ``They burned [my] house; everything,'' says Sophia Chepkoech, a primary-school teacher. She says separation of groups in Kenya may offer the best hope for peace. ``The Kikuyus should stay alone,'' she says, and ``should brush away that mentality that only a Kikuyu president can run the country.''
In a farming area just outside Molo, Kalenjin farmers wounded two Kikuyus in a clash in mid-July. The Kalenjin claimed self-defense.
The Kikuyus ``came with pangas [machetes],'' Kalenjin farmer Stephen arap Siglai says. ``There were very many. They carried shields. We pushed them back with bows and arrows.''
Though they staved off the attack that time, these Kalenjin are surrounded by Kikuyus and worried about more violence. ``When you hear a dog bark you think someone is coming,'' says another Kalenjin, who asked not to named. When the Kalenjin farmers anticipate an attack, they hide their families in their fields, despite the cold, Mr. Siglai says.
For these people, the Kikuyus and Kalenjin of the Rift Valley, Kenya's days of stability seem far behind.