It was around noon in Kiambaa, near the equator, when a group of residents who had sought refuge on the grounds of the town's small church heard people chanting war songs. The singing came from two directions and gradually became louder and more distinct. As the first group came into view -- hundreds of young men carrying machetes, spears and bows and arrows -- the people gathered there already had a sense of the impending ordeal. They fled into the simple church, made of mud and sticks, where they knelt down and began to pray. Suddenly the singing outside stopped and there was silence.
Grace Githuthwa, holding her three-year-old daughter tightly in her arms, was one of those seeking safe haven in the church. When the first rocks and arrows began flying into the sanctuary, "we knew that our time had come," says the 30-year-old Githuthwa. The assailants broke down the decayed wooden doors, leaving the group unprotected. While the men fled outside, where the mob hacked them to pieces with their machetes, the women and children cowered deep inside the church on mattresses they had brought along. After killing the men, the attackers barricaded the doors, poured gasoline on the mattresses and set them on fire.
Grace Githuthwa managed to escape through a window with her daughter Miriam, only to face the angry mob outside. One of the men tore her daughter from her arms and threw her into the flames. Githuthwa ran for her life and didn't look back. She made it -- but without her daughter.
The massacre that took place last week in this town near Eldoret, a city in the Kenyan mountains, was the worst incidence of ethnic violence over the last few days in Kenya. The violence was triggered by an apparently rigged presidential election on Dec. 27, prompting hectic efforts within the international community to defuse the crisis.
On Friday of last week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke by telephone with President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga calling upon the two adversaries to guarantee a "return to peace and normalcy."
Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who also heads the African Union, announced his own efforts to mediate and also contacted officials in Kenya by telephone. "We are very eager to restore peace in our sister country," Ghana's foreign minister said.
On Thursday South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu traveled to Kenya, where he spoke at the Africa Council of Churches in Nairobi and called upon Kenyans to restore peace. He told the meeting that South Africa had experienced a similarly hopeless situation and dealt with it. And he urged all sides to reconcile.
President Kibaki had initially shown little interest in giving in. Until the weekend, he refused to allow the head of the African Union to travel to Nairobi, although he did agree to meet with Tutu on Friday. That evening, Kibaki announced that he was willing to accept a new vote -- but only if a court ruled in favor of new elections. Kibaki's concession was more or less meaningless, since Kenya's judges are handpicked and under the president's control.
The outbreak of violence in Kenya during the past few days is not just the result of election fraud. Tribal rivalries, the social marginalization of entire ethnic groups and the shameless abuse of power are the root causes for the bloody tragedy. Kibaki heads a highly corrupt cabinet, with almost all ministerial posts held by members of the Kikuyu people. Though the country's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu still make up only about 20 percent of the population. They have dominated Kenya for decades, which has translated into their receiving the best jobs, the best roads in the regions where they live and the best health care. Kenya's founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, was a Kikuyu, as is Mwai Kibaki, the country's third president since Kenyan independence.
The European Union election monitoring group, headed by German politician Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, also confirmed that the presidential election was a farce. "The 2007 general elections have fallen short of key international and regional standards for democratic elections," he said. Voter turnout was reported at an impossible 115 percent in at least one polling location. And in at least two districts there were wide disparities between the results of the local vote count and those later announced by the Kenyan election commission in the capital Nairobi. The changes were in the president's favor in each case.
Challenger Odinga soon accused Kibaki of election fraud, arguing that his Orange Democratic Movement's (ODM) landslide victory in the parliamentary election that took place on the same day supported his claims.
The voting booths for both elections were close together in the polling stations, making it even more unlikely that Kenyans who voted for one party in the parliamentary election would have chosen the other party in the presidential vote. It seemed highly unusual that the name Kibaki had been checked on most voting slips in the presidential voting booths. When the votes were being counted, Odinga was ahead by more than a million votes at times, but then the pendulum suddenly swung to a narrow 232,000-vote lead for Kibaki.
Odinga is a member of the Luo ethnic group, which represents roughly one-tenth of Kenya's population. The Kikuyu live in the center of the country, in the region surrounding Mount Kenya, while the Luo are concentrated along the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. They have felt discriminated against by the Kikuyu for decades. In 1969, a Kikuyu murdered Tom Mboya, a prominent Luo politician, and the Luo have never forgotten his assassination.
Odinga is a tall, charismatic man. He studied in the eastern German cities of Leipzig and Magdeburg in the 1960s and speaks fluent German. His father was the country's vice-president under Kenyatta. After Kibaki had himself sworn in at a hastily staged ceremony in the garden of the official presidential residence, the Nairobi State House, Odinga also proclaimed himself president. The dispute led to clashes between anti-government protestors and the police in the streets of Nairobi, where barricades were set up and businesses looted. Dozens died in the unrest.
International Mediators Stream In
In the wake of the violence, Odinga has also changed his strategy. While his voters expect him to fight for power, he is also under pressure to avert another bloodbath. "We have three options," the opposition leader said at his party headquarters, dubbed the "Orange House": civil disobedience, resistance in parliament and action through the law courts.
But the parliamentary option would be tantamount to capitulation in the eyes of Odinga's supporters. Civil disobedience, on the other hand, could lead to further chaos, which Odinga wants to avoid, and yet he is unwilling to give in. Last week he likened Kibaki to the former Ugandan dictator and mass murderer Idi Amin and called his opponent's election win a "civilian coup."
When heavily armed police used their clubs to break up protests by his supporters in downtown Nairobi last Thursday, Odinga promptly called for another protest march on the next day. Although it failed to materialize, the threat alone was enough to keep tensions high in Nairobi. A few shops opened their doors again on Friday, but stockpiling of food and fuel quickly led to shortages. According to a UN spokesman, violence has forced 180,000 people from their homes and half a million Kenyans are now dependent on humanitarian assistance.
It is unlikely that Kibaki will be able to ignore international pressure for long. Even the Americans, who prematurely congratulated him on his election victory, were quick to withdraw their statement. Although Washington sees Kibaki as a loyal ally in the war against terrorism, it distanced itself from the autocratic ruler in the wake of growing protests against the president.
Despite international efforts, a sustainable solution to the conflict is still not in sight. Kibaki offered to form a national unity government with the opposition but Odinga prefers the option of a power-sharing coalition or even an interim government to prepare for new elections. Still, Odinga agreed to meet with international mediators over the weekend, including Washington's top diplomat in Africa, Jendayi Frazer. On Monday he called off protests planned for Tuesday.
Even Desmond Tutu concedes that a recount of votes would be ineffective. After the chaos of recent days, Tutu believes, it would be nearly impossible to reconstruct the true results. And any coalition between Odinga and Kibaki also seems unpromising, because the same experiment has already failed once before.
Odinga forged the rainbow coalition that brought Kibaki into power five years ago. But once he was president, Kibaki broke his promise to name Odinga his prime minister. Instead, he placed Kikuyu in key positions and soon proved to be so uninhibited in filling his own pockets that Edward Clay, the former British high commissioner to Kenya, accused Kikuya and his ministers, in their arrogance and greed, of stuffing themselves "like gluttons."
The recent EU-Africa summit in Portugal revealed just how prickly some African leaders like Kibaki react to Western criticism. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel chided Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe over human rights abuses, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade angrily set Merkel straight, telling reporters: "Who can say that human rights are being violated more in Zimbabwe than in other African countries? No one can say that."
Ironically, the constant flow of aid to Africa has reduced the effectiveness of diplomatic pressure. The West supplies aid to most African dictatorships, Zimbabwe included, almost always justifying its decision with the argument that eliminating aid would be most harmful to those in need.
Another element complicating the Kibaki case is that the world community has regarded Kenya as a bastion of stability until now, especially given the far more troubling conditions in other countries in the region. Uganda has suffered from more than two decades of internal unrest and civil war, Rwanda was devastated by genocide in 1994, and Congo, Somalia and Sudan have all seen their shares of civil war. Meanwhile, the West studiously chose to overlook the alarming conditions in Kenya's interior.
Even as international mediators stream in and out of Nairobi, ethnic reprisals appear to be continuing outside the capital. Last Thursday men from the Kalenjin ethnic group, armed with knives and machetes, erected burning roadblocks in the region around Eldoret, where they checked cars for members of the hated Kikuyu group.
At the same time, endless convoys of cars formed in front of the region's police station, where hundreds of Kikuyu have been camped out for days. "Last week a Kalenjin came to our house to tell us that they would soon come back to kill me and my family," says Joe Kamau, 37. He packed his belongings, took his three children and sought refuge at the police station. Kamau says that he wants to go to Nairobi.
Meanwhile, Red Cross employees have found 13 charred corpses of toddlers and infants, the youngest perhaps no more than two months old, in the ruins of the church in Kiambaa. The bodies of their murdered fathers still lie in front of the church, where they tried to protect their families -- and were killed for their efforts.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan