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Cut down along an invisible line

In Kenya's post-election violence, sudden tribal boundaries sprang up, and neighbors continue to turn on each other.

January 13, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, KENYA — A man lay on the road, his body twisted. He was so still amid the flying rocks, rising smoke, rubber bullets, screaming women and youths waving machetes that you could walk right by him.

His name was Dishon Omondi. There was a scarlet pillow of blood under his head.

In Kenya's deadly postelection violence, a terrible spasm that pitted tribe against tribe, he had ambled unknowingly across an invisible border: a Luo man in Kikuyu territory. A week earlier, nothing would have happened to him on that road.

"Leave him there to die!" someone yelled.

"They deserve that kind of medicine!" shouted someone else.

Then details leaped out: crimson splashes soaking his shirt; his pockets turned out and emptied; a golf ball-sized lump over his right eye; his jaw misshapen and ballooning; his head caked in dirt and blood.

"I didn't know it was this bad," Omondi said as we walked slowly to the car, the crowd, suddenly silent, watching.

"Friends, friends, am I going to reach the hospital?" Omondi, 40, said, groaning as he lay in the back of the car, his eyes awash with blood. "Am I going to die?"

When we arrived at the hospital and he struggled to sit up, it was obvious that his injuries were worse than they had seemed. There was a pool of coagulating blood on the seat, and a wound, not visible before: a 4-inch machete gash on his head.

In the lobby of Kenyatta National Hospital, nurses put in a drip, stanched the bleeding and wheeled his gurney to one side, where he would wait his turn to be X-rayed and stitched.

Omondi felt lonely and afraid, far from his wife and three children.

"I'm doubting, I'm doubting for my life."

Tribal boundaries

When Fred Otieno wants to cause havoc, he carries a machete. The 25-year-old Luo and his gang call themselves the Samurais for Kenya.

"We have arms, like pangas," he said, referring to the 2-foot-long machete used to chop coconuts and hack at roots, trees or, in troubled times, people. "When you are a fighter, there are many things you need. Are you there for fun? Or are you serious?"

Like a boulder ready to roll with a little push, Kenya has been teetering on the edge of full-out tribal conflict since the disputed presidential election late last month.

Overnight, in one of Africa's stable and peaceful nations, young men picked up machetes and began hacking up their neighbors. There was open talk of war. To save democracy, the young men said, they would tear their country apart, no matter how many people died or how much the country lost.

Otieno is one of the opposition supporters who poured into the streets after President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the presidential election. Riots erupted, people were attacked and shops, churches and shacks were burned down. They attacked Kikuyus because Kibaki is Kikuyu, and they thought he always gave his tribesmen the best jobs.

But down in the slums, Kikuyus and Luos lived side by side, facing the same arduous conditions.

Otieno, a struggling hip-hop musician who has no job, grew up in the Kibera slum, an undulating sea of shacks sliced up by narrow alleys decorated with shredded plastic bags. You can stand in a valley and see only an arc of rusty roofs rising to the horizon on all sides.

Homemade TV aerials claw the sky, in the areas that get electricity. A baby cries somewhere. But under the bubbling voices, there is silence: no engines, no air conditioning, no machines, no birds except for the wheeling eagles above.

In times of peace, it is the usual vibrant, heaving pile of life you find in any African township: people frying fish heads to sell; children playing in the dust; small stalls with tomatoes and purple onions; tins of charcoal for sale; and everywhere the drifting smell of open sewers.

But it can turn in a second. One sunny Sunday, all seemed quiet. But then a wild-eyed young man marched up, armed with a machete and surrounded by a posse of thugs. He whacked our car with his machete as the group screamed at us to leave.

A chunky, muscled fellow, Otieno swears he is ready to fight and die for democracy. He said the Samurais for Kenya operate in groups: Some attack enemies, some police the "borders" that have sprung up between tribes in the slum, and others are the defenders.

He knows tribalism is taboo in Kenya and rambles on with vague platitudes about peace, democracy and uniting all people. But the longer he talks, the more the reflexive resentment against Kikuyus surfaces. He calls them "Kiuks." Tribal hatred seeps through.

"Kiuks stole my prosperity," he said. "The Kiuks tried to take everything for themselves. Most of the shops are taken by Kiuks. They're thieves. If they want to take your property, they'll just go to the government and get a letter and get your property."

30 hours on a gurney

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