By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 13, 2008
NAKURU, Kenya -- A week after Kenya's warring political leaders signed a power-sharing agreement, Marian Wambui arrived at a camp for displaced people here, her house having been burned to the ground just two days earlier.
As President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga celebrated in Nairobi, the mother of two was wondering where in the unfamiliar sprawl she might put the two plastic bags of belongings that were all she had left in the world.
Wambui stood in the sun, facing the details of her new life: a registration tent and a light blue meal card. A long line led to workers adding fresh names to a list already 16,000 long -- mostly people from Kibaki's Kikuyu ethnic group who had been chased from their homes in this western Rift Valley region and were now living in rows of white tents in a dusty field.
"I was expecting peace, but now I don't see any peace," said Wambui, 34, who is Kikuyu, adding that she had thought she would be safe once the agreement was signed. "When I heard people talk about that deal, I was very happy," she said. "It doesn't mean anything to me now."
Kenya's volatile Rift Valley is a landscape of uprooted lives these days. Bitterness lingers, along with an almost triumphant mood among the local people who have driven out Kikuyus they perceive as privileged and arrogant.
In the town Wambui fled, young men leaning in barbershop and barroom doorways said her house had been burned in a fit of reckless jubilation after Odinga signed the deal, which one local leader described as "a cease-fire," not a settlement.
Others said flatly that if their Kikuyu neighbors return, as Kibaki has urged them to do, they will be attacked, suggesting how easily the country might slip back into the ethnic violence that killed at least 1,000 people and displaced 600,000 after the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election.
Yet with those tensions festering, neither Kibaki nor Odinga has set foot in any camps for the internally displaced or, for that matter, any Rift Valley towns since the campaign season, encouraging instead a kind of national amnesia as a means of healing.
In his first major speech since the crisis began, Kibaki urged Kenyans to "please forget the history of what happened," and Odinga instructed his followers to "forget the differences caused by the election."
But here in Nakuru and the dozens of other camps that dot the countryside, people said they could not easily forget the neighbors who chased them with machetes, killed their husbands or wives and destroyed farms and businesses that had taken decades to build.
"I'm strongly convinced that what's done cannot be undone," said a Kikuyu father of five who had just arrived at a camp for displaced people in the Rift Valley town of Naivasha and was afraid to give his name. "What I've seen, what I've heard, I think I'd be cheating to say I'm comfortable now. Where shall I go? Will I be able to resume my normal life?"
The man's new home is a roadside camp consisting of thousands of tents, where enough people arrive daily to convince others that it is not yet safe to return home.
"People are still coming here on buses," said Agnes Wairimu, whose Rift Valley farm was burned down. "It's still going on, so we don't see how we can go back there. People are still in that mood."
Naivasha, a town of flower farms and empty tourist lodges, has absorbed busloads of displaced Kikuyus. It was also the scene of a brutal revenge attack in which Kikuyu gangs went door-to-door hacking people mostly from the Luo, Kalenjin and Luhya ethnic groups assumed to have backed Odinga.
Many people displaced by that attack are living in a second camp several miles from where the Kikuyus are staying. They said it was better that way, to remain separated, and that they are uneasy about going into town.
"The tension is still there," said Vincent Ochimbor, 37, who works at a nearby flower farm. "After the deal was signed, some people went to town and they were beaten."
Many people have left Naivasha, preferring to be jobless rather than work with Kikuyu neighbors who had attacked them.
"There are people who saw their wife or husband or child killed," said Matthew Obonyo, a friend of Ochimbor's. "You find the people who participated are workmates and you're told to forget. But it's difficult."
Across the Rift Valley, many of the settlements for the displaced are taking the shape of semi-permanent refugee camps, with tented schools, tented health clinics and tented counseling centers.
People who had jobs and productive farms in the fertile valley are receiving rations of yellow peas and yellow flour and growing impatient with a life they can hardly imagine as permanent.
"We are just waiting for an answer from Kibaki," said Regina Wanjiko, who has been living at the Nakuru camp for two months. "We want Kibaki to help us, to give us another place to live -- anywhere but in the Rift Valley."
A few hours beyond Nakuru, past scorched fields and the charred remains of gas stations and markets, it is easy to see why people are uncomfortable about heading home.
In the town of Kericho, a stronghold of the local Kalenjin ethnic group blamed in so many attacks on Kikuyu farms, Dominic Bettkibet, an elder, still holds sway over young men who are jobless and idle. He spoke in well-polished phrases and slogans -- "A Kikuyu is a Kikuyu, whether he's a bishop or whatever" -- of the sort that motivated militias to attack Kikuyu farms.
"If they come back, we cannot guarantee their security," Bettkibet said as he sat in a restaurant with friends. "The government should resettle those people somewhere else."
He said the Kikuyus -- who lost land during the colonial period and were resettled in the Rift Valley over many decades through government programs that often favored them -- were "invaders" who needed to be repelled.
"The influx of these people here means the indigenous people in the Rift Valley in 50 years will be squatters on our own motherland," he said. "We are hospitable, but they have undermined our hospitality. . . . When someone undermines you, dehumanizes you, you will not feel comfortable."
A police official in Kericho said that efforts were underway to promote reconciliation but that "the political big shots" needed to tour the region and address their supporters.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that although there had been no large-scale attacks on Kikuyu homes lately, the situation remained volatile.
"The hostility of locals is still there," he said.