News 2008


Pictures from the valley of fear

Telegraph UK

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 remain.

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 showground

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 other'

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.'