Neighbors fear neighbors in Kenya's growing tribal war

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 2, 2008 

NAIROBI, Kenya — As the death toll from days of tribal warfare topped 300, the fabric of tribal coexistence that generally has characterized civic life for decades is unraveling.

A day after a grisly tribal attack in Eldoret in central Kenya in which 59 members of the Kikuyu tribe were burned alive in a church, witnesses said that some 40 bodies, many of them displaying machete wounds, lay dead on the grounds of the Kaptein Tea Estate, owned by the Unilever Corp. Residents interviewed by telephone said the victims belonged mostly to the Kisii tribe, which is allied with the Kikuyu in that area.

"They were probably killed (Tuesday), but the bodies are still lying there," said Vincent Korir, a 30-year-old farmer. "No one is attending to them."

In Nairobi, a Kikuyu mother of three stood beside a charred apartment house Wednesday and spoke in a hushed tone so that neighbors of other tribes couldn't listen.

"I hear others whispering in small groups," Serena Wambui, 46, said of her section of the capital, where she counted residents of at least five tribes. "I fear they will definitely attack us more and more."

The main victims so far are the Kikuyu, Kenya's most prominent tribe and key backers of the Kikuyu president, Mwai Kibaki, who claimed a narrow re-election victory Sunday despite credible reports that he'd stolen thousands of votes.

Kibaki had himself sworn in within minutes, triggering a wave of beatings, looting and arson by mobs from the Luo, Kalenjin and other rival tribes who thinks that the Kikuyu have dominated politics and business for too long.

U.S. and European observers have said the vote-counting process was flawed, and the Bush administration has withheld recognition of Kibaki. The U.S.-funded International Republican Institute charged Wednesday that the Kenyan government and its election commission had "failed in its responsibility to the people of Kenya."

The latest local official to undercut the result was the government's chief election official, who told local media outlets Wednesday that Kibaki's party had pressured him to announce a winner before the vote tallies could be verified.

Asked whether Kibaki had won the slimmest presidential vote in Kenyan history, the haggard-looking official, Samuel Kivuitu, said, "I don't know."

Kibaki aides didn't respond to the statement.

Residents in Nairobi braced for more chaos as opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo, called for a "mass protest against a rigged election" Thursday in the center of the capital. Government officials vowed to block the demonstration.

Odinga supporters said they'd come anyway. "If the police mess with us, we are ready to mess with them," said George Oyeko, 32, a heavily muscled Luo.

Some Kenyans have begun to invoke comparisons to Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered over three months in 1994. The rivalries here are less volatile — Kenya has 42 tribes, while Hutus and Tutsis predominate in Rwanda — and the violence so far appears to be a spontaneous revolt rather than an orchestrated slaughter.

But in ethnically mixed sections of Nairobi on Wednesday, neighbors warily eyed neighbors across tribal divides. In Kangemi, a sprawling expanse of dirt paths and sheet-metal shacks, residents said they were sleeping in shifts and growing suspicious of packs of young men huddled on street corners.

Some said they'd abandoned Swahili, the national language, in favor of tribal tongues. In Kangemi, men were organizing neighborhood watch groups along ethnic lines to patrol the slum after dark.

"It is true that other tribes are ganging up on one tribe," Oyeko said. "But there will not be peace until Kibaki steps aside."

He punched one fist into the other. "The people are bitter," he went on. "Their tribe is everywhere. Until there is a change, this war will continue."

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by phone with Odinga and planned to speak with Kibaki to urge a compromise. But there was no sign of a thaw.

"So long as people are saying the elections were stolen, there is no way you can start negotiations from there," said a Kibaki ally, Finance Minister Amos Kimunya.

The U.N. said that 70,000 Kenyans had fled their homes, and the independent Kenya Human Rights Commission estimated the death toll at more than 300 since the vote last Thursday.

Swarms of heavily armed police officers and soldiers swept into Eldoret to restore order after Tuesday's church burning. But aid workers saw fresh columns of smoke rising from hundreds of homes in the countryside and worried that Kenyan authorities weren't keeping up with the carnage.

"It is really disturbing," said Daniel Kiptugen, a conflict resolution officer with the British charity Oxfam. "I know a place where some dogs have already started mauling dead bodies that have been lying there."

(McClatchy special correspondent Munene Kilongi contributed to this report.)

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