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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 January 2008, 11:17 GMT

Trapped in a fracturing Kenya

By Karen Allen
BBC News, Eldoret

It is a little unnerving when there is a man next to you sharpening a large machete on the ground by your feet. Swiping it in a menacing manner.

A man walks past burning a tire in downtown Eldoret (17 January)
Up to 900 people have died in Kenya since last month's election
But the machete - or panga as Kenyans refer to it - has become a common sight here. Not simply as a farming tool, but now as a weapon as well.

It is dusk and we are at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the town of Eldoret in the Rift Valley.

A group of dozens of excitable youths has gathered around us. They are noisy, curious about our presence here, but they are not threatening and they are keen to talk.

They had hauled huge concrete slabs onto the road to block the traffic. They are searching vehicles which have come on to what they consider their territory.

A fortnight ago, when I last visited Eldoret, the police were busy dismantling the roadblocks. Now there are no police in sight.

"These barriers were originally put up as a protest," one young primary school teacher told me when I first came to this town - one renowned, in more peaceable times, for its dairy farms and horticulture.

Surnames are now used with care. They can reveal that you are a Luo, a Kikuyu or whatever.

Unable to travel to Nairobi to express their anger at what they saw as a stolen election, for fear of being shot by the police, the men say the roadblocks were erected as a physical expression of discontent.

Now the politics have been cast aside and the roadblocks are altogether more sinister.

Revenge

The men patrolling this roadblock are armed with machetes, bows and arrows and clubs.

President Mwai Kibaki (L) and opposition leader Raila Odinga (R)
Kenya's president and opposition leader have been holding talks
They fear revenge attacks by gangs loyal to the Kikuyu tribe, members of President Mwai Kibaki's ethnic group.

There is a rumour that a gang known as the Mungiki sect is planning revenge attacks after other members of its community were driven away from their homes.

But in other parts of now divided Kenya, the roles are reversed. Kikuyus are defending themselves from what they say are aggressors from other tribes.

This crisis is seeing countless Kenyan lives being ripped apart
When I ask one of them - who appears to be their leader - why they chased the Kikuyus out in the first place, he refers back to the election saying the Kikuyus had "done the wrong thing" by casting their votes for the president's party.

But dig deeper and it is clear that the disputed election is merely a catalyst.

Some people here believe that they have been denied access to land because Kikuyu settlers were moved in after independence.

Generations have passed, tribes have intermarried, but the issue has never been properly addressed.

Exploitation

This crisis is seeing countless Kenyan lives being ripped apart and there are plenty of people ready to exploit the fear and instability.

A map of Kenya showing the town of Eldoret
One man told me he had had to pay 10,000 shillings ($180) - more than a month's wages for many here - to get the police to escort his family out of Nairobi's Kibera slum, which has been the scene of appalling clashes.

He was keen to remove his young children from the violence. But a 10,000 shilling "bung" is enough to get you just a short distance away, perhaps only a mile from the slum.

Beyond that, you are on your own.

Language of hate

Kenya, in the past, proudly boasted of its diversity. But today, it seems, every conversation is dominated by ethnicity.

Hire a driver to take you to an unfamiliar place and it is important to know what tribe he is from.

Can he talk his way through the checkpoints or will he be attacked because of the community he comes from?

Surnames are now used with care. They can reveal that you are a Luo, a Kikuyu or whatever.

Go to a hotel and one waiter will explain how his family is now in hiding, terrified they will be attacked. Another waiter, from a different tribe, will come out and rubbish his colleague's story.

This may not be Rwanda in the 1990s, but this is supposedly cosmopolitan Kenya and the language of hate has become deeply disturbing.

Trapped

People are becoming stranded, prisoners in their own communities because the roads are so unsafe.

A Kenyan friend called David - a man in his thirties, the youngest of six boys - came to me distraught.

His brother had died suddenly, not because of the violence but through illness, and he urgently needed to make the 400km (250 miles) journey back home to bury him. But so far he has not been able to.

Armed with a fistful of cash to pay for inflated bus fares he set out in search of transport and a police escort that could deliver him safely from Nairobi to his home in the west of the country.

But no-one will take him. It is just too dangerous.

Three days on, David is still unable to pay his last respects nor is he able to ensure the small plot of land his brother owned does not get snatched by greedy hands.

Like so many others David is trapped in a dislocated Kenya and it is hurting him. All he can think about is whether God will forgive him for failing in this last act.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 31 January, 2008 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




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