Pictures from the valley of fear
08. March 2008
The ethnic unrest in Kenya has
left in its wake thousands of
displaced people. The photographer Marcus Bleasdale visited one of
the hardest-hit regions, the Rift Valley, and found that until
issues surrounding land ownership are resolved, the tensions will
By Isabel Albiston
Since the disputed presidential election of December 27, Kenya has
been in the throes of ethnic segregation. A wave of tribal and
political violence has led to a large-scale movement of people
forced from their homes. More than 1,000 people have died as a
result of the post-election violence and the United Nations
estimates that at least 600,000 people have been uprooted.
The displaced camp in Eldoret where more than 10,000 Kikuyu are
seeking refuge after being targeted by the Lou tribe in the region.
The camps are well organised and usually set up in a stadium or
The photographer Marcus Bleasdale, who spent six years documenting
the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has recently
covered the crisis in Chad, arrived in Nairobi in late January and
spent two weeks in the Rift Valley in the west of the country. 'Having
travelled through Kenya for nearly 20 years, always on the way to
or from somewhere else, it was disturbing to be covering this
situation in a country that I thought of as peaceful and
democratic,' he said.
President Mwai Kibaki's claim to victory in the flawed election
sparked riots in the Nairobi slum of Kibera. Protests by
opposition supporters quickly escalated into widespread ethnic
violence across the country. 'The political situation is the
catalyst for the violence, but the hatred that has emerged is
tribal,' Bleasdale said.
There are 42 tribes in Kenya, the largest of which, the Kikuyu,
makes up only 22 per cent of the population. Members of all tribes
have instigated attacks in some areas and been victim to them in
others. Nowhere are ethnic tensions more acute than in the Rift
Valley, where Bleasdale's photographs were taken. 'In Nairobi I
saw street battles between the police and mobs - thousands of
rioters setting up roadblocks and burning houses, tyres - but the
massive displacement of ethnic groups is happening in the Rift
Valley,' he explained.
In Chepilat a Kisii-owned pharmacy is set alight by a Kalenjin.
'The pharmacy had provided a service to the whole community,'
Bleasdale said. 'This incident was at the start of a battle
between Kalenjin and Kisii warriors that lasted several hours.
Later in the day the police started firing indiscriminately.'
There Bleasdale visited towns where vast areas had been razed to
the ground and the inhabitants forced to flee. One town, Chepilat,
has been physically divided along one road, which is referred to
as the border, with people from the Kalenjin tribe on one side and
the Kisii on the other.
In Chepilat violence has occurred between people who went school
together, lived in the same buildings and in some cases
intermarried. Days of retaliatory burnings have destroyed schools,
pharmacies and houses. 'There are gangs of a couple of hundred
people walking through the town with machetes, bows and arrows,
spears and stones, setting buildings alight,' Bleasdale said. 'A
lot of people look on in disbelief, unable to understand what has
happened to their peaceful country.
'The ongoing crisis is being spearheaded by gangs of men from
different areas who are shipped into towns and paid (probably by a
small number of politicians and political activists) to burn down
houses and mark the doors of people who are in the "wrong" tribe,'
he added. 'If they are lucky they are told they have 24 hours to
leave. In other towns they are just shot.'
Kisii warriors move into position after Kalenjin men attack
Kisii-owned buildings in Chepilat. 'This shot was taken a few
minutes after the pharmacy was set alight but now Iím on the other
side - it was easy to cross from one side of the battle to the
Underlying the bloodshed is the issue of land, the key to economic
and social advancement in Kenya. Many in the Rift Valley have long
believed that their land was stolen by outsiders. When Kenya
became independent in 1963 many British colonial farmers sold
their property to wealthy Kikuyus, allowing them to encroach on
the ancestral land of Luos, Kalenjins and other tribes in the Rift
Valley. Today the largest landowners in Kenya are the families of
its three presidents since independence - the Kenyattas, the
family of Kenyatta's successor Daniel arap Moi, and the family of
Kibaki - followed by a number of white settlers, senior
politicians and well-connected businessmen. Meanwhile the demand
for land has grown because of the scarcity of paid jobs.
For those fleeing violent persecution there is no choice but to
pack up what they can and return to what they believe is their
traditional family homeland or 'ancestral home'. 'In some cases
people are dismantling the home they are being forced to leave and
loading it up on to a truck - taking down the veranda, pulling off
the tin roof, taking off the front door, taking out the window
panes; everything,' Bleasdale said. They are obliged to pay for a
truck to transport their belongings, and vehicles are overloaded
with possessions and crowded with people to bring the cost down.
For weeks packed trucks have been driving away from the Rift
Valley towards east or central Kenya. But what will those on the
move find there when they arrive? 'Sometimes nothing,' Bleasdale
said. 'They are dropped off at the side of a road, in a field.
Then they have to go and visit the village chief and see what
relatives they have left there. They can ask to borrow some land
and set up some kind of shelter, and then negotiate a price for
the land, if they can afford to.'
Initially, some families who have been forced out are given
shelter and police protection at a nearby displaced camp where
typically they spend two or three weeks before continuing their
journey. Bleasdale met a magistrate in a displacement camp, whose
internet cafe and photocopying business had been burnt down. 'Everyone
is being forced to move back to their ancestral home,' he
protested. 'Mine is in the bush and everyone there is a cattle
farmer. What am I going to do there?'
'The country is shell-shocked. People are looking around thinking,
why is this happening to us?' Bleasdale said. So what hope is
there for a peaceful resolution to this situation? 'There is the
constitutional issue that people are trying to change, but there
is also the issue of land,' he said. 'You can postpone the
animosity and hatred with negotiations in Nairobi but you won't
get rid of it until you solve the land issue.'