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Kenya Refugees Describe Ethnic Attacks After Elections

Kenyan officials estimate that at least 250,000 Kenyans have fled their homes as a result of violence that broke out across the country after a presidential election last month that was seen as seriously flawed. For VOA, Nick Wadhams traveled to some of the hardest hit areas northwest of Nairobi to hear their stories.

A pastor in the town of Molo preaches to hundred of refugees who fled violence that has wracked the country since the December 27 vote. About 300 refugees are within the walls of the church, where they are given blankets, a small amount of food and rudimentary shelter. Those with cars have brought the vehicles inside the compound for safety. Children play in the grass, and men tell the stories of the violence that surrounded them.

While the attacks have cut across the lines of Kenya's 42 tribes, most of the victims have been Kikuyu, like President Kibaki, who won a second five-year term in the flawed election.

David Njenga is a 25-year old student. He recounts what happened to him on New Year's Eve when boys with their faces painted red attacked his village outside Molo.

"After the announcement of the elections, they started that day, on Monday, chasing us, and they killed four men from our village," said Njenga. "We hid in the bush, then they came and burned the house. They paint their face with reddish colors so you cannot notice the person although those people, we know them because some of them we are living together in that village. We are friends."

Stories like Njenga's have become common across a swath of western Kenya since Mr. Kibaki was declared the winner of the vote, which international observers decried as unfair.

The Kikuyu are Kenya's biggest tribe and make up about 20 percent of the population. President Kibaki has been accused of bestowing jobs, power and land upon Kikuyus, and his controversial victory over opposition candidate Raila Odinga sparked an angry backlash among other tribes, including Luos, Luhyas and Kalenjin.

Some opposition leaders have described the violence as a spontaneous outburst of rage from people furious that the election was stolen. Yet interviews in Molo and other areas northwest of Nairobi suggest that the attacks were coordinated, and perhaps even planned.

People described a pattern that was echoed by many victims.

Young men, often with their faces painted red or white, arrived by truck and sheltered for a time at the home of a loyalist. They then fanned out and relied on neighbors of their victims to point out the homes to be torched. Those belonging to Kikuyus were destroyed, those belonging to others were left standing.

Above Molo, a helicopter piloted by aid workers flies over looking for torched farms and pockets of Kenyans who suffered from the crisis. The violence has killed hundreds of people and forced at least 250,000 to flee their homes so far.

Atop a hill overlooking Molo sits the Apostolic Faith Church.

"The toilet is full, it's full, I've done what I can do, but God is giving us the assistance," said the church's pastor, Samuel Ciuga.

He saw the same thing during election time in 1992, 1997 and 2002. Each time, the church opened its doors to those fleeing the violence. At least 250 people have been living in his church compound for weeks. Some came after the election, and some came before, in response to violence that begun in the run-up to the vote.

Based on the accounts he has heard, Ciuga says he has no doubt that the attacks were planned.

"They are young men, very small boys, and they are in thousands, they are brought in trucks, and they are set out to go and invade certain communities, invade the Kikuyus, invade the farms," said Ciuga. "And they have been told to torch the houses because when you torch the houses, that person will not have anywhere to live."

"These young boys, we don't know them but they are trained. They just follow instructions, torch that house, even some have been promised, if you torch that house, you get 500," he added.

Many of the worst attacks have been further north of Molo, around the city of Eldoret. Eldoret is populated largely by the Kalenjin tribe, also the tribe of former President Daniel arap Moi. It was outside Eldoret where a church was torched just a few days after the election with at least 17 people inside, including many children who had taken refuge there with their parents. Witnesses said the Kalenjin were to blame.

Kalenjin with bows and arrows also manned roadblocks around Eldoret, stopping cars and searching for Kikuyus.

William Ruto is a senior adviser to Odinga, the opposition candidate. He is a Kalenjin who represents Eldoret North. He says that many of Kenya's ethnic groups have been angry that the country's wealth is believed to have been put in the hands of only a few.

Ruto and his fellow leaders with the Orange Democratic Movement have repeatedly called for their followers to be calm. Yet he has been singled out by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights as a leader who should be prosecuted for allegedly promulgating hate speech prior to the election. He vehemently denies the claim.

"I consider anybody who says that we did say anything to the effect that anybody should leave their homes absolute rubbish because there are no statements that we made along that line," said Ruto. "We were preparing ourselves to govern this country and we believe that time has been delayed for a little while but we will be governing this country shortly. Anybody who makes statements must be able to just [justify] those statements."

Even before the vote, Kenya had at least 250,000 internally displaced people -- mostly the result of ethnic clashes in the places they live. And now, whatever the cause, violence has once again put thousands of people on the roads to safer areas.

The lasting effect of the violence will not be known for some time. But several Kikuyu refugees said they would never return to areas where they once lived so long as they are not the majority. Most refugees -- from whichever ethnic group -- said they would not continue the violence, but, as one mother put it, for them the grudge is permanent.