News 2008


Revenge Killings Stoke a Violent Cycle in Kenya

Tribal Gangs Spread Deadly Confrontations Across Country's West

By Stephanie McCrummen

Washington Post Foreign Service

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

NAIROBI, Jan. 28 - The toll from five days of fighting between rival tribal gangs across western Kenya rose to at least 85 Monday, as the post-election violence that has swept this East African nation began to take on a new character: revenge.

It began in the western city of Nakuru on Thursday, with gangs of young men from President Mwai Kibaki's tribe, the Kikuyu, roaming the streets with machetes and clubs. They hunted down and hacked to death people from opposition leader Raila Odinga's Luo tribe, residents said. It was payback time, it seemed, for past weeks in which hundreds of Kikuyus have been killed and tens of thousands driven from their homes.

The violence then moved to the tourist town of Naivasha, 50 miles northeast of Nairobi, and by Monday, about 2,000 young men squared off along a main road, taunting one another, with machetes, rocks and nail-studded clubs in hand.

Police officers, appearing nervous, fired bullets into the air to disperse the groups. But the tribal divisions that have characterized the violence since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election were clearly drawn: Kikuyus on one side of the road, staring down mostly Luos on the other.

"This is Kikuyu land!" one side shouted, according to local reporters, with the other retorting "No Raila, no peace!"

The dead in Naivasha included 19 people, mostly Luos, who were chased through the streets Sunday by Kikuyu gangs, trapped inside a house and burned to death, according to Luka Katee, the Naivasha district commissioner.

That incident in particular appeared to be retribution for 17 Kikuyus who were burned to death this month in a church where they were hiding. The church burning, along with the torching of homes and villages across western Kenya in recent weeks, seems to have been committed by well-organized local militias loyal to Odinga. It is unclear, however, whether the Kikuyu involved in the latest violence were also well-organized, or ad-hoc mobs, or both.

Some reports indicated that young Kikuyu men had been bused into Naivasha to exact revenge on Luos. But Katee said that as far as he could tell, both the Kikuyu and Luo gangs in Naivasha were young, unemployed locals taking their own revenge.

"They are mobs," he said Monday. "They don't have a leader."

In the sort of vicious cycle that has leaders and diplomats here worried, the killings in Naivasha -- news of which was broadcast across the country -- prompted a violent reaction 125 miles to the west in the opposition stronghold of Kisumu.

There, thousands of Odinga's Luo supporters poured into the streets Monday, blocking roads with boulders, setting fire to five buses owned by a Kikuyu company and pulling apart a stretch of railway line that ships food from the fertile Rift Valley region into Nairobi.

In the afternoon, a drunken group stoned to death a man they presumed to be Kikuyu, who had been running for his life through one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Although Kikuyus have been chased out of Kisumu, the incident appeared to be the first mob-style killing in that city.

By Monday evening, tempers across western Kenya seemed to have cooled, though tensions remained high.

Police and Kenyan soldiers patrolled streets of major cities and towns in the region. In some areas, military helicopters swirled over the rusted tin-roofed neighborhoods where violence has tended to burst forth. Local authorities said they had the situation under control.

But many Kenyans fear that the situation is spiraling beyond the control of Kenya's deadlocked political leaders, who have vaguely called for peace in one breath, but blamed one another for the violence in the next.

With former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan in Nairobi for mediation, Odinga and Kibaki's teams on Monday prepared ground rules for negotiations that are widely thought to be Kenya's best hope for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

More than 800 people have been killed and at least 250,000 displaced since Odinga accused Kibaki of stealing the election. It is the East African nation's worst crisis since independence from Britain in 1963.

"Civil war is not too strong a word for the fears people have," said Salim Lone, a spokesman for Odinga.

The violence has struck the poorest settlements of Nairobi but has mostly remained concentrated in western Kenya.

There, members of the local Kalenjin and Luo tribes, loyal to Odinga, are apparently using the occasion to address long-standing land disputes with Kikuyus, who settled there in large numbers with the help of a Kikuyu-dominated government in the years after independence. Tribes in Kenya break down largely along ethnic lines.

For weeks, busloads and trucks packed with Kikuyus and heaped high with bundles have been exiting the Rift Valley area, headed to points east or all the way back to their traditional home province in central Kenya.

The process of tribal segregation has continued in recent days, only this time with Luos hitting the road, running from the Kikuyu gangs. In general, they are headed to Luo-dominated areas to the west.

On Monday, Lone said opposition leaders think the past days of reprisals against Luos were also well-organized, with Kikuyu attackers being transported from the western Nakuru, where the violence began Thursday, to Naivasha, where it continued Monday.

"We believe quite strongly that these gangs are organized," he said. "We are even more concerned that the violence is slowly coming to our capital city. Really, unless there is some clear sign through this mediation process that gives people hope, it is bound to get worse."