BURNT FOREST, Kenya (Reuters) - Named for its birth by fire high up in Kenya’s fertile Rift Valley, Burnt Forest is ablaze again.
More than a week after some of the worst clashes in Kenya over a disputed presidential election, farmsteads in the Rift are still smoldering and smoke from new fires is rising over the green valleys.
Residents say this election was only the spark for tinder set down in 1992 under President Daniel arap Moi, in a manipulation of tribal rivalries designed to defeat a threat to his power, the advent of multi-party democracy.
“Because of the votes then, it created problems between tribes. Moi was sending people to fight the minority, the Kikuyu,” Harun Njoya, a refugee from his own burned farm, said. “It is a repeat of 1992.”
Njoya is like thousands of Kikuyu farmers, members of President Mwai Kibaki’s tribe, who have taken refuge at a local high school since the attacks started on December 30.
Many now are veterans, having faced assault and forcible eviction at the hands of Kalenjin warriors paid to attack them in three elections -- 1992, 1997 and 2007.
“This time the magnitude was greater. It seems they were organizing themselves for a long time,” school headmaster George Gathige said.
Thousands of Kikuyus across the Rift have fled, among more than a quarter of a million Kenyans displaced by the unrest.
In Burnt Forest -- so named because its evergreen trees were felled and burned to create farms when Kikuyus settled there in the mid-1960s -- Kalenjin youths came within minutes of the announcement that Kibaki was the winner on December 30.
“They were just in the shopping centers around and within 10 minutes, they were running back with bows and arrows and pangas (machetes),” said Steve Ndung’u, a Burnt Forest native who worked as an election official.
With gasoline and dry maize husks, they began burning houses and shops, he said. Elsewhere, they raped, killed and looted, residents said. The death toll from the Rift is at least 200 of the more than 500 dead nationwide.
“They came singing Kalenjin warrior songs. You could hear that common song all over,” Ndung’u said. The police were quickly overwhelmed by the simultaneous onslaught, he said.
Evidence of the attacks is clear from the Nairobi-Eldoret highway, even though it extends far off the road. Blackened homes are everywhere, some with only a tin roof left. In the distance, some farms were burning on Thursday.
Along a 100-km stretch of highway south to Nakuru and east to Eldama Ravine, black lines set off by big stones slash the asphalt every 10 km or so -- remnants of burning roadblocks where Kalenjin youths paralyzed the Rift for a week.
Since then, Kenyan army engineering units have cleared them and police and paramilitaries are commanding the roads.
Fuel trucks are now heading north in numbers to fill empty tanks all the way into Uganda, while buses full of the displaced, often piled high with mattresses, head south to traditional Kikuyu lands.
Founding President Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, in 1965 arranged the sale of Burnt Forest with the help of his then-Home Affairs minister, a rising Kalenjin politician named Daniel arap Moi.
Under Kenyatta, Moi helped ease tensions between the nomadic Kalenjins, who grew angry that Kikuyu farms blocked their ancestral grazing lands.
But Moi was quick to exploit those same tensions in 1992 and 1997, with the help of the Youth for KANU ‘92 group blamed for violence then. William Ruto, a top opposition politician now, cut his political teeth as treasurer of Youth for KANU.
Ruto and Moi have since split, with the former president opposing his protege and backing Kibaki. But where Moi “had the machinery to stop things when they got out of hand,” Ndung’u said, Kibaki’s government must now step in.
Kibaki visited Burnt Forest on Wednesday and promised to boost security so residents can return, and pledged to arrest opposition members responsible for what his government calls genocide. Ruto and the opposition have denied wrongdoing.
“The government should send an investigation team and those that are inciters should be brought to court and tried,” Njoya said.
Additional reporting by Florence Muchori; Editing by Charles Dick
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.