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In Kenya, ethnic distrust is as deep as the machete scars

Thirty-six people died when the Kenya Assemblies of God Church was attacked and burned down by ethnic Kalenjin militias during Kenya's post election violence nearly two years ago. Alleged attackers and victims talk about what happened.
Map locates Kiambaa in Kenya

"You go near the swamp by the Ugandan border," said the former shopkeeper, who rescued his wife, daughter and four boys from the burning church. "You can't miss."

It was late afternoon, and Ngaruiya ran his fingers absently along the machete scars that divide his face and crease his skull. He was tired from riding his bike to town, where he has tried without luck to find work. Groceries, shops, and bus and truck companies seem interested in hiring only Kalenjin these days, he said, because of the possibility that Kikuyu-dominated businesses will be burned, as they were last time.

When he thought about it, he said, the post-election crisis taught him not that tribalism is a destructive tool of political elites but that his tribe is perhaps his only refuge anymore. The Kalenjin, he figured, have decided the same.

"We Kikuyus, we are uniting," Ngaruiya said. "And the Kalenjin, they follow their leaders so strongly. We know that. This thing has made tribalism stronger."

Kiambaa, a mostly Kikuyu community of yellowy fields and shaded red dirt paths, is relatively quiet these days; only about half of its residents have returned from tented displacement camps. Where the church was burned, two rows of low, wooden crosses, already overgrown with weeds, mark the graves of people who died inside, most of whom were women and children.

Tensions here remain so high that local Kalenjin leaders objected to building more permanent cement graves or a memorial, saying it would amount to an admission of guilt, or even a curse.

'It's taking too long'

One of those objectors is Alfred Kiplamai Bor, an influential Kalenjin elder whose sprawling family farm is just across a barbed wire fence from Kiambaa. He is accused of helping to finance Kalenjin militias, which poured across his farm to attack his neighbors at Kiambaa, a charge he denies. Bor's sons were recently acquitted in a Kenyan court of charges that they directed the militias and helped burn the church, a trial that many Kikuyu victims said was deeply flawed.

Bor, 88, calls Kikuyu neighbors "thieves" and accuses them of a sordid array of tribal practices that he calls "uncivilized."

"They are not wanted here," said the elder, sitting at his home on a little hill, where he's hosted some of Kenya's top Kalenjin leaders. "To solve this thing, it's very difficult."

Before the election, the Bors bought sugar and other goods from Kikuyus in Kiambaa. Kikuyus walked to Bor's farm for milk and corn. With few exceptions, those simple gestures of trust have not resumed.

One of Bor's sons, Emmanuel, said he does not share his father's views, though he feels in some way captive to them. When the militias arrived at his farm on New Year's Day -- by his count, more than 1,000 young men smeared with mud to disguise their faces -- he said he had little choice but to pretend to join them. Had he declined, he said, he might have been killed. When he arrived at the burning church, he said, his conscience told him to help. He said he yelled at the militias to open the church door before the building collapsed. He was there to rescue his neighbors, he said, not to burn them.

"These are people I've grown up with here," Emmanuel Bor said. "I don't know why they've not come back. This reconciliation is worrying. It's taking too long."

He walked outside his house then, across his field, under the barbed wire and into Kiambaa. It was getting dark, and the silence of the place was odd.

"This place was so full and busy," Bor said, walking past burned-out houses. "But listen now -- only bats. What keeps people away? I really don't understand." There are some Kikuyu neighbors who believe the younger Bor's story and have been branded traitors for it. Others said that even if they wanted to believe him, they cannot.

"We don't know what they are planning," said Regina Muthoni Nyokobi, whose mother died in her wheelchair in the church fire and who sometimes dreams of revenge. "We don't know their hearts."

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