Danstan Muchai left the land he had cultivated for 30 years as part of a lumbering, 100-vehicle convoy. Together with his wife, parents, three sisters, two children and about 3,000 other distressed and weary Kenyans from the highland town of Eldoret, they set out for the southeast on Wednesday, toward the central highlands and safety. Three days earlier a roving gang of enraged youths waving machetes and clubs had rampaged through Muchai's Eldoret neighborhood and set fire to his house. "They were saying they want to wipe all the Kikuyus from the Rift Valley," Muchai, an ethnic Kikuyu, said in a telephone interview from the road, where his convoy was making slow progress along a series of potholed roads. "Right now we are on our way out, and people are pleading with us on the roadsides to ferry them, but we cannot. We cannot."
Kenya hasn't seen this kind of violence for more than 40 years, when it gained its independence from Britain in 1963 in a bloody war. During the intervening decades, during which much of this part of Africa has been swamped in chaos and mayhem, Kenya, while heedlessly corrupt and inefficient, has also slowly become more stable and more democratic. It hasn't been a smooth process, but the occasional flareups of political violence pale in comparison with the spasm of carnage that the contested Dec. 27 election has unleashed across the country. Following a vote that international observers have condemned as fraught with problems and potential fraud, President Mwai Kibaki swore himself back into power after claiming victory over his chief rival, Raila Odinga. Almost immediately rioters took to the streets. With more than 300 people dead—many burned alive, some beheaded, others hacked to death by machete-wielding youngsters drunk on rage and unemployment—what started as predictable election jitters is verging on an ethnic war that threatens to engulf Kenya's 40-odd tribes in a conflict of impenetrable complexity and betokens, for the rest of Africa, the tragic end of an era.
One of the toughest spots has been an area in southwestern Kenya around the town of Eldoret. One popular guide book calls Eldoret "refreshingly unthreatening and friendly," and the land has just the kind of rich soil that makes for good potato and maize crops. Its mountain roads have bred a generation of Olympic runners. But this week the villages and towns around the region's capital were engulfed in a tit-for-tat orgy of burning, looting and murdering that has left the croplands scorched and barren and the population terrified. Many thousands, like Danstan Muchai, have simply fled. During one bloody afternoon two days ago Eldoret was transformed from a sleepy farming town into the site of an ethnic skirmish pitting the Kalenjin tribe against the Kikuyu. In a wave of attacks and counterattacks, members of the two tribes swarmed through surrounding villages, looting and torching houses. "That I witnessed directly," says Father Simon, an assistant priest at the Saint Patrick's Catholic Church in the town of Burnt Forest, where thousands of Kikuyus have retreated for shelter and protection from what they believe is a growing menace from their former neighbors. "They were screaming, throwing things, breaking into shops, and they torched some of the other houses as retaliation. It was like ethnic warfare."
Some of the local churches in and around the Eldoret parish have swelled with the increasing flow of refugees. Father Simon believes around 20,000 people have come to the parish seeking shelter. Saint Patrick's has run out of water. There is no sanitation service. The Red Cross promised to come, but so far no help has arrived. "Being here will be a hell, because we don't have sanitation enough for all these people," Father Simon said. "It's like a time bomb here unless aid arrives in time." Nearby, in Sacred Heart Cathedral, one woman who spoke to a reporter by telephone but asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation, said that refugees from several different ethnic groups have swarmed into the church. Many are children. Others are survivors of attacks by armed men with machetes and bows and arrows. "No one knows which group is doing the attacking," she said. "In my area it was Luao houses burned, but in other areas it was Kikuyu houses. Either way it is very organized."
With no end to the political stalemate in sight, another worrying development has begun: large migrations of ethnically homogenous people back to their ancestral homelands. After the report of an arson attack at one church in Eldoret, in which some 50 people were burned alive and others hacked to death, the government police force sent squads of police out to accompany victimized locals to shelter. Some worry that the forced resettlement set a worrying trend and may prevent the kind of reconciliation that Kenya needs. "Maybe it's because of the trauma and the scarring," says Father Michael Rop, of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Eldoret. "What's happening is something that nobody has ever seen before, burning houses and vehicles, but the solution is not relocating people to their ancestral homes." Those caught up in the violence, though, feel they have few options. "Even if I decide to stay, I don't have a house," says Muchai. "Kikuyus are all alone."