Neighbor turns on neighbor in Kenya

Kenyan president’s Kikuyu tribe all but vanishes from city as a result of outlash.

.KISUMU, Kenya (AP) – The young man hefting a machete at the burning roadblock was frustrated. He’d been looking for five days, but could not find a member of the Kikuyu tribe to kill.

Members of Kenya’s biggest tribe have disappeared in their thousands from Kisumu, making it the first – but perhaps not the last – city to be ethnically cleansed.

“If we find any Kikuyus, we’re going to slaughter them or burn them alive,” 19-year-old Daniel Odongo said Wednesday, who wielded the machete as a mob of hundreds of young men with rusty axes and other weapons roared their approval. “But there is none in the houses around here.”

When incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was announced as winner of Dec. 27 elections by a narrow margin after days of unexplained delays, many in Kisumu took to the streets of the city of 504,000 on the shores of Lake Victoria, looting and setting shops ablaze.

The residents, mainly from the Luo tribe of opposition leader Raila Odinga, soon turned their rage on Kibaki’s Kikuyu people – a minority in the western city resented for their domination of politics and the economy. They set Kikuyu homes on fire and ordered them to leave, or face death.

At the local police station, records show that officers escorted out of the city an average of 21 buses a day packed with panicking Kikuyus in the first two weeks of January. That means about 20,000 people fled Kenya’s third-largest city, leaving about 484,000 people behind them. It is not known how many Kikuyus may have fled on their own, but it is not believed to be much higher than 20,000.

Now only about 150 Kikuyus remain, camping miserably opposite the police station for protection. No buses have been escorted out since Jan. 13, although murderous young men still stop vehicles searching for victims.

Odongo lamented that the only Kikuyus around were being guarded by police.

The Kikuyus trickling into the camp by the police station in the last few days are the poorest of the poor, as well as those with the strongest ties to the city.

“If this continues, I can say goodbye to Kisumu,” Donise Kangoro said sadly. The 50-year-old trader, who had not eaten for two days, has lived here for two decades, married a local woman from the neighboring Luyha tribe, and fathered two children.

His wife and children returned to her people, but Kangoro hung on through the madness of the first days, when angry opposition supporters torched the homes of his fellow Kikuyus, and through the tense weekend when news arrived of faraway revenge massacres.

But when he saw a howling mob hunting his neighbors through the streets five days ago, he knew there would be no mercy. He ran, leaving behind his money, food, clothes and goods to sell.

There may be a handful of Kikuyus hiding in the houses of the wealthy, he said, but he doubts it.

“We are the last Kikuyus left in Kisumu,” he said.

Government figures released Wednesday said the number of people forced from their homes has risen to 300,000, showing that ethnic cleansing has not diminished, and this threatens to redraw Kenya’s once cosmopolitan ethnic map in areas like the Rift Valley.

On Wednesday, the top U.S. envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, said Kenya was experiencing “clear ethnic cleansing” in the Rift Valley region.

“There was an organized effort to push people out of the Rift Valley,” Frazer said. Now after weeks of deadly attacks, counterattacks and reprisals, she said “killing may be the object.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said experts from the department’s Office of War Crimes Issues were compiling information about the postelection violence but had not yet made any findings.

“If they do document any instances of atrocities, we’ll have to look at what next steps to take, but at this point we’re not there yet,” he said. He also noted that “ethnic cleansing,” unlike “genocide,” is not a legal term with a set definition.

Asked if he was disavowing Frazer’s comments, McCormack replied: “She said what she said, I am going to stick to what I said.”

The violence in Kisumu began when protesters started looting and police responded by firing into the crowds. Dozens were killed. Those shot, mainly Luos, were the first victims killed in this city.

More than 800 people have died across Kenya, including scores in the Rift Valley this week when members of the Kalenjin ethnic group attacked Kikuyus in the town of Nakuru, and Kikuyus attacked Luos and others in the town of Naivasha.

Outside the capital of Nairobi, meanwhile, about 300 unarmed Kikuyus gathered to demand that a scores of Luo people working at the Kenya Research Forestry

Institute there leave. They set ablaze a grass field that was part of an animal feed research project, and police escorted a bus full of women and children out of the institute.

When the killings began in Naivasha and Nakuru, Dorothy Atieno suspected the cycle of revenge would continue. The murder of an opposition lawmaker in Nairobi on Tuesday was the final straw.

“I called a (Kikuyu) friend and told her to leave immediately or she would be killed,” she said quietly, her painted fingernails toying with her pink skirt. “Luckily, she had already gotten out.”

At Nyamasaria Primary School, where Atieno is a teacher, almost half the 1,200 students were Kikuyus. They began to disappear after the election; now, not one is left, she said.

In one of the worst attacks, Kikuyus chased 19 Luos into a shanty in Naivasha, blocked the doors and set it ablaze. Babies were among the dead.

Odongo said that attack is what set him off on his vengeful hunt for Kikuyus.

Throughout the town, the blackened walls thrust into the air like broken teeth in a row of fully intact houses. Many of these Kikuyu homes and businesses were attacked by neighbors who lived beside them for decades.

Looters have done a thorough job, with even roofs and windows stripped away.

Now children play in the ruins, where the only other sign of the victimized owners are a few torn photos and a Christmas card trampled into the mud.

Six-year-old Nicky Ochieng, a Luo, said he took two books from the house where his Kikuyu friend, Maina, used to live. Asked whether they will ever play together again, he answered earnestly, “only if Raila becomes president.” The other children giggled.

The child echoed what adults here say: Vanished neighbors can only come back if there is a political solution to the allegations of electoral rigging, charges supported by international and local observers.

Odinga and Kibaki began formal talks Tuesday, but the patience of their supporters is evaporating and the language of both leaders was brittle and combative.

In that deadlock lies the only chance of redemption, said Kangoro, his words echoing those of the people who would kill him. Kikuyu and Luo residents agreed that an acceptable political solution would allow them to live together again. When Kangoro fled, he left his house keys with neighbors, trusting them to look after his home.

“Not all these people are bad,” he said.

In addition to the ethnic violence, there also have instances of random killings – but mob justice is common in Kenya, even in normal times.

Although he had gone hunting for Kikuyus without knowing how they voted, that was only to put pressure on Kibaki, he said.

“This is purely political,” he concluded, waving his machete to make his point.