Kenyans forced to flee violence find ways to cope

Plans for key talks toward a political solution to Kenya's post-election crisis fell through Tuesday. Meanwhile, 250,000 have been displaced by ethnic violence.

Rob Crilly
Displaced: Geoffery Karanja and his daughter fled ethnic violence in Kericho, Kenya, last week.
Riccardo Gangale/AP
Residents of the massive Kibera slum in Nairobi received food aid from the Kenyan Red Cross on Tuesday. Ethnic clashes have stopped, but 250,000 people have been displaced since the disputed Dec. 27 vote.

Geoffery Karanja knew the column of smoke was coming from his house as he looked back over his shoulder on his way to the market.

He raced back to his simple timber home to find an angry mob armed with machetes and bows and arrows shouting and dancing outside.

"My wife was still inside," he says. "She had been cooking and was caught unawares. No one could get in to rescue her because these people kept us from getting close."

Mr. Karanja's wife was one of more than 500 people to die in ethnic clashes that spread across Kenya in the wake of the disputed Dec. 27 elections.

The spasms of violence have stopped, but longstanding ethnic animosities in East Africa's most stable and prosperous country have been piqued like never before.

Now – as diplomats step up efforts to get populist opposition leader Raila Odinga and incumbent President Mwai Kibaki to agree on a political way out of the crisis – members of Kenya's economically and politically dominant Kikuyu ethnic group are on the run.

A steady stream of buses and trucks packed with Kikuyu families has been snaking out of towns in the western Rift Valley, where the violence has been most severe, taking them home to their ancestral homeland farther east.

The United Nations estimates that more than 250,000 people have been displaced so far.

Efforts for a political solution took a hit Tuesday when Mr. Odinga, who claims that Mr. Kibaki stole the tightly contested election, rejected bilateral talks.

Odinga said he would attend negotiations only if they were mediated by African Union chairman John Kufuor, who arrived on Tuesday. But Kibaki did not invite Mr. Kufuor to the talks, which had been hailed by a range of foreign diplomats as a breakthrough.

Odinga called off nationwide protests to allow time for mediation to work, but says they will resume if it fails.

As the standoff deepens, people like Karanja are left to fend for themselves.

For now, he is camped in a bedraggled field next to the police station in the Rift Valley town of Kericho with hundreds of other Kikuyus who have lost their homes or businesses.

"I am ready to leave," he says, sitting with his daughter next to the dusty pile of possessions that he managed to salvage, "but we have no way to get out."

Kericho's tiny morgue is crammed with 32 bodies from a week of killing.

One corner of town is nothing but a blackened ruin where Kikuyu-owned stalls used to stand.

Samwel Sangolo, who also lost his home, says many Kikuyus had been expecting trouble.

"It was overdue. It was coming," he says. "The election is an excuse. They want us to go home and not make any money from our businesses."

The Kikuyus have long been prominent in the Kenyan economy.

Many other ethnic groups are suspicious of a business acumen that has seen them spread across the country from their central Kenyan homelands, opening shops, restaurants, and factories as they go.

"You can't trust the Kikuyus. Good riddance," spits one local in Swahili as he walks past the field where hundreds of families are camping in the open.

Threats and rumors of fresh attacks continue to swirl around the town set amid the rolling hills of Kenya's tea plantations.

The Red Cross estimates that about 10,000 Kikuyus have been forced from the town so far.

Richard Barchok, chairman of the local branch, says thousands have already left for family villages farther east but thousands were still camped in the center of town, close to the security of the police station.

"We have people who have lost everything," he said. "These people need total help – food, shelter, water, sanitation, everything."

Much of Kenya has been returning to normal this week. The roads are filling with traffic and shops and offices have reopened.

Many ordinary Kenyans seem to have little energy for more protests and clashes. After a Christmas break extended by a week of violence they are eager to get back to work and start earning money.

But that is not an option for the steady flow of people leaving Kericho.

Margaret Bosiri has been sleeping under the stars waiting for a ride home since last week.

She had to watch as hundreds of attackers armed with bows and arrows swept through the farm where she lived.

"They followed me into my house with [machetes]. They took all our valuables – radio, chairs, even the mattress," she says.

The gang piled up her cushions in the center of the house, doused it with fuel, and set her little house ablaze.

She fled with her children to a church in the center of town, where they now sleep on a tiny patch of grass.

"I will return when things are normal," she says, "but I don't know when that will be."

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