Where Kenya Is on Fire

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Tim Cocks / Reuters

Opposition supporters brandish their bows at a roadblock on the route to Eldoret.

The first sign of trouble comes around two hours from Eldoret in the hills of Kenya's Rift Valley. Several pine trees have been felled across the road, forcing a detour through the forest. A few minutes later, we come across a road-sign barrier bent across the highway. "You cannot imagine that this is Kenya," mutters Preston, my driver. We come to several more roadblocks manned by men sitting by the side of the road. Their breath smells of banana beer, and they want money and news of Nairobi. Some of them check Preston's tribe. I congratulate myself for swapping my usual Kikuyu driver for Preston, a Luo, at the last minute. By now the road has deteriorated to a heavily potholed gravel track. "Look at this road," says Preston. "Look how bad it is around here. This is why they are fighting." At the next roadblock, a telegraph pole laid across the road, a man leans into the car and drunkenly slurs, "We do not like Kikuyu this side."

Preston, an American colleague, and I are driving to Eldoret, the vortex of the tribal violence that has swept Kenya. Four days ago, a mob surrounded Kyamba church just outside Eldoret where hundreds of Kikuyu villagers had sought shelter. The mob barricaded the church doors with mattresses and set them alight. The flames spread through the building and, according to reports at the time, between 30 and 50 people were burned alive before the fire burst through the doors and the rest were able to escape. The Kikuyu, the biggest of Kenya's 42 tribes, became targets after the Kikuyu President Mwai Kibaki was sworn in for a second term in what overwhelming evidence suggests was a rigged election. For Kenya's other tribes, angry at what they regard as corrupt Kikuyu dominance of the country's politics and business, this was an outrage. Particularly angered were the Luo — the third largest in this east African nation of 36 million, whose populist candidate, Raila Odinga, was denied the presidency. Violence erupted across the country. Kyamba church burned the next day.

As we travel up the Rift valley, the scale and fury of Kenya's southern division becomes ever more apparent. We enter a village called Kamosong, and 15 men surround the car. One is carrying a foot-long knife, another a hockey stick, a third a bow and arrow, a fourth a wooden club. A man who introduces himself as Thomas tells us the men are from the Kalenjin tribe of former President Daniel Arap Moi. "Have you got anyone in the back?" they ask Preston. "What's your name? Are you Kikuyu?" A few minutes further on, there is another roadblock and more men with bows and arrows. Then another, at which they check the trunk and Preston's identity card, which shows he is a Luo. We have passed around 10 more when we come to Kangasif. There is a minibus burning by the side of the road. A mob of 30 surround us. They bang their fists on the window. They are carrying machetes, heavy car wrenches, and more bows and arrows. One reaches into Preston's window and opens his door. Another man, smashing on my window with his fists, shouts, "We don't want you. We want your driver." Preston flashes his identity card. The men relax for a second, and we drive off.

On the outskirts of Eldoret, we come to a different kind of checkpoint, manned by the Kenyan military police. Inside it along the road into town, thousands of people are dragging suitcases and huddling in groups. Families are camped by the roadside, hanging their washing on fences. At the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, Nickson Oira, 28, an assistant coordinator for the diocese says up to 9,000 people have sought shelter on the grounds. A further 50,000 are scattered at other refugee points across the town. Up to 20 Kikuyu villages around Eldoret are now deserted, says Oira. All the refugees are living in the open; many have brought whatever belongings they could carry — beds, mattresses, cheap armchairs, cockerels and, under a pile of wooden benches, a sewing machine. A two-man team from Medecins Sans Frontieres is distributing blankets. "Our challenge is food" says Oira. "Because of the looting, all the shops are closed and because of the roadblocks, there is no food coming."

Among the crowd is Josephine Wairimi, 45. She was inside Kyamba church when it was burned. She escaped with her husband and five children. A relative was less fortunate and lost three children in the flames. "These people were our neighbors," she said. "We knew them. They came to our shops. They talked to us." I ask her if she can return to Kyamba. "No," she says. "We can never live there. We can never talk to them. They are our enemies now."