Friday, January 11, 2008

Kenya Troubles -- View From North Rift

Double 6 writes Conflict In Africa blog. He says:
I have considered Kenya home for over 4 years. In many senses, I feel I’ve come of age while living in this East African Eden. It does things to me that no other place has. I have always felt Kenya was different than other African countries.
After witnessing peaceful voting in Nairobi on the 27th, he left with a friend to drive to Uganda on the 29th, this is his story.
On December 29th I was driving with a friend towards Uganda. We were going on a safari for a few days to celebrate the New Year. To get to Uganda from Kenya you must drive through Nyanza,Western, and Rift Valley provinces, all ODM strongholds. We started to get text messages that things were stirring up in Nairobi with large groups of demonstrators taking to the streets. Shortly after learning of this, we pulled into the town of Eldoret. There was a strange vibe in the air. At one end of town the road had been blocked by huge boulders pushed across the road. We drove around them, and cautiously proceeded into town. We saw smoke burning at one end of town. We headed north on the road to the Malaba border. The street was lined with men, standing shoulder to shoulder, two or three deep. It was noon, but all of the shops were eerily closed. The men looked pensive, the crowd was charged; they pumped clinched fists. The air felt combustible. We hurriedly proceeded through town, swerving around a tire burning in the street. We then came to our first roadblock. Rowdy youths were beginning to congregate and had blocked the road with stones. We rolled up the windows and drove around them as they cheered, waving machetes, clubs, and rocks in the air. My heart rate went up and I felt adrenaline surge through my body. The Uganda border was an hour away. We proceeded, not knowing what was ahead. In minutes we met another roadblock, a larger crowd blocked our vehicle. We continued, unsure what to do. Then we came to several youths lying across the road, some sharpening their machetes by scraping them across the tarmac. I rolled down the window to negotiate. They demanded money and stated we couldn’t continue. Looking down the road we saw a crowd of at least 1,000 people blocking the road. Traffic ground to a halt. We were pinned. My friend JP turned the Landcruiser around and we conversed in quick, sudden bursts, fear oozing through the vehicle’s interior. Several more young men surrounded our car. One raised a boulder and threatened to throw it at the windshield. Another knocked the rear glass with a club. They began yelling. JP lunged the Landcruiser at a guy standing in our path. He dove out of the way and we quickly accelerated back towards Eldoret, clearly shaken.

At the junction with the Kitale road, all transport trucks and cars had pulled off the side of the road. I chatted with several people. They said fighting had started in Eldoret, the town we’d passed through 30 minutes ago. We inquired about the Kitale road. We decided to give it a try. Within 10 minutes, just south of the village of Soy, we met another angry mob. They were shouting ODM party slogans and demanding that the ECK pronounce the winner. Most of the protestors were ethnic Luos and Kalenjins. They began to take out their political frustrations on ethnic Kikuyus. This is one of the reasons they were blocking the road. They were looking for supporters of PNU (Kibaki’s party), angered by fears that the votes were being manipulated. We couldn’t proceed and again turned around. The uncertainty of what was unfolding was most unsettling. We were trapped. We had been blocked and threatened in both directions. Civil unrest simmered, while political frustrations fueled ethnic conflict. Luckily, a few hundred meters back there was an army barracks. We pulled in and drove up to the heavily guarded gate to shelter with several other travelers who sought refuge from the uncertainty of the mob. A Kikuyu driver was hiding with his vehicle. He was clearly afraid. Fighting back tears, he said that he was forced to lock himself in his room and hide under his bed earlier in the day. Another group of Kikuyus fearing retribution from the frenzied mob, hid in a shelter near the barracks. I went and spoke to them. They were terrified. The soldiers guarding the base assured us protection.

No cars were moving. Then the mob went on a rampage, and started raiding shops and homes on the road a few hundred meters in front of us. One man ran for his life. I was sure I was about to witness him being beaten to death. I witnessed his beating, but he managed to get up and run. His attackers didn’t pursue. We stood there, with our ringside seats to this sick event, paralyzed by this sudden onslaught of violence. Now I know this was not an isolated incident. It was merely the start to a bloodletting that has been going on for three days. After several hours of remaining in the shadows of soldiers who had assured us protection, the crowd dispersed and cars started to move again. We waited a while and then also proceeded, wheeling back onto the road to Kitale.

I studied my Kenya map and found several rough roads that went east and south, avoiding towns and villages. It was the only way to get back to where we came from and away from the violence, without passing through Eldoret. The day was getting late and we needed to be off the road by nightfall. We were staying in touch with other friends and colleagues around the country who were also bracing for whatever was coming. Thankfully our cell phones continued to work. JP pushed the Landcruiser hard as we raced south towards Iten, and then into the Kerio Valley. We climbed up the eastern side of the valley and entered the town of Kabarnet. Things were quiet, but a clear tension was felt. The interactions on the street were not those of a typical day at dusk in a rural Kenyan town. Something was amiss, astir. We filled up with diesel and considered our options. Two other friends were already camping within the compound of a hotel next to Lake Bogoria. They were about an hour away and had reported no problems in their area. Deciding it was the best option, we blasted out of town and slipped down towards the village of Marigat in darkness. Within an hour we reached the Lake Bogoria Hotel where our friends were camping. We put up our tents and began swapping stories.

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