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

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; A10

KIAMBAA, KENYA -- Nearly two years after a wave of post-election violence brought this East African nation to the brink of civil war, Joseph Ngaruiya has learned to ride his bike with one leg, the other having never fully healed from machete cuts. He's learned to tolerate the "sorrys" and small talk of neighbors who he believes hacked him nearly to death and burned a church here, killing 36 people in one the worst days of the ethnic bloodletting.

What he has not managed, he says, is to summon sufficient faith in their apologies or in justice to keep him from buying an AK-47 once he gathers enough money.

"To stay the way we were that time, unarmed, we can't," said Ngaruiya, 38, who was among hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kikuyus driven from this western farming region by Kalenjin tribal militias after the disputed December 2007 election. "Next time, it will be much worse."

Despite a power-sharing deal and a reform agenda intended to rescue this nation from collapse, the situation remains dangerously volatile, troubling U.S. officials who are already juggling other worries in the region. With Kenya's eastern neighbor, Somalia, at war with al-Qaeda-linked rebels and its northwestern neighbor, Sudan, sliding toward civil war, U.S. officials say a stable Kenya is more crucial than ever.

But the coalition government of President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader turned prime minister Raila Odinga has remained entrenched in the divisive tribal politics that led to the ethnic violence.

The government has moved slowly on reforms, blocking any domestic judicial process for trying the perpetrators of the violence, who are widely believed to include Kenya's political elites.

The International Criminal Court recently announced its own investigation, which is likely to focus on a few top leaders alleged to have orchestrated violence.

"Leaders and people are going into their tribal cocoons, where they feel they are safe," said Ken Wafula, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, a Kenyan human rights group. "Unless something is done, we are waiting for an explosion that would be very disastrous."

Rift Valley violence

Perhaps nowhere is the situation more fragile than here in the rolling, green Rift Valley. Some of the worst ethnic violence played out in this western region after Odinga accused Kibaki, who is Kikuyu, of stealing the 2007 presidential election. What followed has been described by investigations as a well-planned bloodbath in which Odinga's Kalenjin supporters burned houses and farms and otherwise drove Kikuyus out of the Rift Valley with bows, arrows and machetes. Kikuyu gangs soon organized their own ethnically driven retaliation against Odinga supporters. In all, more than 1,000 people were killed.

Though the tribal calculus could change this time, depending on political alliances in Nairobi, the capital, people speak with near certainty of a repeat of that violence, only this time with guns.

According to Wafula and others, Kalenjin and Kikuyu self-defense militias are forming, some of them including retired military commanders. And while reports of people buying guns are difficult to verify -- and Kenya's gun laws are strict -- Kenyan police earlier this month intercepted a cache of 100,000 bullets, military-grade weapons and uniforms being smuggled with the assistance of local police, which has lent some credence to the claims.

Sitting in his mud-walled house, Joseph Ngaruiya said that he knows where to get a gun when he's ready.

"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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