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Divisions harden in a Nairobi slum

A creek becomes a border between tribal zones. The challenger calls for mediation of the election dispute.

January 06, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, KENYA — At the edge of a Nairobi neighborhood called the Ghetto, there is a bridge across a gray, stinking creek, on a street called Mother Teresa Road: The creek has become a frontier between two worlds, and the bridge the border crossing.

All day Saturday, under the protection of paramilitary police, people shuttled from one side to the other, carrying furniture, bedding, bags and pots as they steadily divided themselves by tribe.

On one side of the bridge, in the Ghetto, no Luos can live. On the other, in a place called Mathare North, no Kikuyus.

They couldn't have gone about the task more efficiently had the government decreed it.

"Across there we cannot cross. A Kikuyu will never cross into that area. There is a border there," said Margaret Wawira Wanjiru, 30, from the Ghetto.

All over Kenya, people are packing up and leaving their homes, perhaps for good, in the wake of tribal violence triggered by the country's disputed presidential election. Friendships are disintegrating, borders are being drawn, and markets where people once shopped together are no-go zones depending on tribe.

"Before, we didn't hate them, but now we hate them very bad," Wanjiru said, sitting in the ashes of her home, which was burned down Wednesday when a mob of hundreds of Luos invaded the Ghetto.

Carrying machetes and throwing stones, they burned down the Kikuyus' shacks, yelling that they wanted to build a soccer field and name it Raila Stadium, after their fellow tribesman and political hero, Raila Odinga, who believes he won the Dec. 27 presidential election.

The incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was declared the winner a week ago in an election that international observers found had failed democratic standards. The Luos believe it's their turn for power, that Kikuyus have dominated business and politics for too long.

In the first sign of a real compromise, Kibaki offered Saturday to share power in a national unity government. Odinga initially was cool to the overture, demanding that Kibaki step down. Later, he withdrew the demand but called for international mediators to resolve the dispute, the Associated Press reported.

The violence has ebbed, but tensions are still high, and neighborhoods such as Mathare North and the Ghetto are on a hair trigger.

On Mother Teresa Road, which runs through the Ghetto and across the bridge into Mathare North, the tall wooden cross at the Miracle Vision Ebenezer Church is crooked and charred.

As they advanced Wednesday, the Luos threw a gasoline bomb at the church. Dozens of women and children who had taken refuge inside fled as it began to burn, witnesses said. No one was killed.

Smoke billowed and rocks fell like rain. On the Kikuyu side, tense young men with machetes and metal bars hung around on the edge of the battle as others plunged into the fight. Women rushed to pick rocks from the road, collecting them on pieces of sack and ferrying them to the front line, scolding the men who were hanging back from the fight.

"The men should not be cowards," one said.

"Why are you standing there?" an old man asked some armed youths. "The others are advancing. Let's go! Let's go!"

The sound of rubber bullets cracked in the air and armed young men complained that the paramilitary police were helping the Luos by stopping the Kikuyus from surging forward.

Wanjiru's two daughters were eating lunch when the Luos came running, throwing gasoline bombs as they raced through the Ghetto. She recognized their faces: neighbors.

"They were shouting, 'We want this to be a playing field for Raila.' " She fled with her children.

As she sat Saturday in the ashes of her shack, flies swarmed above the mess of her burned belongings, the broken dishes, smashed bottles, burned clothing and melted shoes.

In the burned-out shack next door, Teresia Wangui, wearing a blue head scarf, sat clutching a set of keys.

She smiled sadly when asked what the keys were for. "They're useless now. They're for my house."

She saw three people attacked by the mob Wednesday: The first two were stoned, hacked with machetes, and then their heads were smashed in with boulders. When the mob turned to the third, Wangui ran away without waiting to see how he was finished off.

Three days later on Mother Teresa Road, it was easy to mistake the eerie calm for normality, except for the dozens of fleeing residents. Some pushed handcarts loaded with furniture. Others had flatbed trucks piled with belongings. Children combed through a pile of trash on the roadside, looking for anything of value.

On the Mathare North side, the atmosphere was tense. A silent crowd of more than 100 young men watched people coming uphill from the bridge.

Charity Wanjiru, 30, a Kikuyu, crossed the bridge out of Mathare North on Saturday for what she thinks may be the final time, taking the last of her belongings. She lugged a rolled mattress and clothing. She had not yet found a new place for herself and her four children.

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