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Once stable Kenya now a refugee nightmare

Recent violence coming from Africa sounds like a scene from war-ravaged Congo or Darfur. But this is Kenya, a country long known for welcoming refugees from troubled neighbors — not producing them.
Kenya On The Brink
Displaced Kenyans get hit by the downdraft from a helicopter carrying the provincial governor after he visited Sunday to inspect the makeshift camp  in Kachibora village. Ben Curtis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Armed with bows and arrows and automatic weapons, hundreds of attackers poured through the camp where the terrified had sought refuge Sunday. They fired into the air, sparking a brief gunbattle with police before fleeing into the hills.

Hours later, after the bodies of a woman and her baby shot dead were carted away, aid agencies arrived to hand out emergency sacks of food to the hungry masses.

It sounds like a scene from war-ravaged Congo or Darfur. But this is Kenya, a country long known for welcoming refugees from troubled neighbors — not producing them.

A week of postelection violence has left at least 250,000 people homeless, shattering the East African country’s image as a haven for those fleeing conflict.

“I can’t believe it. We’re refugees in our own land,” said Dan Mugambi, a 35-year-old teacher who was among about 15,000 people sheltering in a primary school compound in the North Rift Valley village of Kachibora. “This has never happened here before.”

Though violence around the country has eased over the last few days, Kenya is still reeling from unrest unleashed after supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga accused President Mwai Kibaki of rigging the Dec. 27 vote. The charges brought long-hidden ethnic tensions to the fore, sparking mayhem in the slums of the capital, the coast and the countryside.

Mugambi said violence here began on New Year’s Eve, when crowds of ethnic Kalenjin youths armed with machetes and spears descended on his village, Geta Farm, about six miles north of Kachibora. They burned the homes of Kisii tribesmen, he said, many of whom backed Kibaki in the poll.

Mugambi fled with his family and took refuge in Kachibora’s Noigama Primary School, attracted by the small police station next door that he and others thought would keep them secure.

It was quiet at the school until Sunday, with the arrival of hundreds of Kalenjin armed with machetes, bows and arrows and rifles. After about 45 minutes, the attackers were repulsed by police.

The corpse of a woman, a bloody bullet wound in her chest, lay face up under a blanket beside a tree. The body of her baby had already been taken away.

District police commissioner Iad Matata said the attackers were cattle raiders who tried unsuccessfully to steal the displaced villagers’ animals. But a dozen people at the camp and a human rights worker said the assault was unprecedented. Cattle raiders, though active in the region, typically launch small attacks on single farms — and rarely with a force numbering in the hundreds.

Mugambi said the attackers’ aim was to harass.

“They want us to move away,” Mugambi said, adding that during every presidential poll since 1992 — the dawn of multiparty democracy in Kenya — “there have been tensions here.” Kalenjin youths left anonymous fliers in villages during past votes “telling us to leave,” he said. “They didn’t this time, but now they’re following through.”

Many people brought with them only mattresses and sacks of maize. They wear only the clothes on their backs. They sleep under the stars on a grassy field, and cook in the open with metal pots over smoky fires.

“We have nothing,” said Nyandika Mogusu. “We have no water and not enough food, blankets, or firewood.”

In the afternoon, a Kenyan air force helicopter landed beside the school with half a dozen senior government officials on an assessment mission that brought them throughout the region. From above, they saw burned homes and roadblocks on the rural highways, though many are being dismantled by security forces.

“It’s been saddening to see. The intensity isn’t as bad as I thought, but I was still shocked,” Jocye B. Nyamweya, permanent secretary for public service, said of the violence that caused so many to flee. “It seems calculated. They want to create fear and anxiety and rifts among communities that lived peacefully together for years.”

Kenya’s 42 tribes have coexisted for most of the country’s history since independence decades ago. But angry and desperate youths supporting rival political factions are being manipulated by power-hungry leaders.

Addressing the refugees for half an hour, the government officials promised aid and security. They urged the people not to retaliate, and told them they would be able to go home soon.

As they spoke, seven Kenya Red Cross Society trucks loaded with two-week emergency rations from the U.N. World Food Program and government-supplied food stocks arrived.

They were quickly surrounded by hungry people.

“This is only a temporary fix,” Mugambi said, watching as sacks of food were unloaded. “The only permanent solution is for people to go home and start farming again, but for that we need security. Right now we have none.”