Will Wounds From Ethnic Fighting Ever Heal?

With hundreds dead, thousands displaced, Kenya split by election violence.

February 9, 2009, 1:05 PM

NAKURU, Nairobi, Jan. 8, 2008 — -- Thousands of Kenyans chased from their homes have streamed into a park in Nakuru, a city 150 miles west of Nairobi, arriving on buses and trucks with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Forced to flee their homes after a week of violence after Kenya's election; they are tired, scared, and some have serious wounds. And they are saddened and confused at why their neighbors turned on them.

Rhoda Nyandia Nderitu was one of the 200 people taking refuge in a church in the western Kenya town of Eldoret when members of a rival tribe set it on fire. She escaped with her child and mother, but about 50 died in the inferno.

"We have no place to go, we are just staying here to see what will happen because everything is burnt out," said Nderitu.

A U.N. report released today likens the recent violence to "ethnic cleansing and genocide."

Liberata Mulamula, the chief of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, said, "Some of these killings are perpetuated in the most bizarre and cold-blooded manner, akin to ethnic cleansing and genocide, as they target the most vulnerable, including women and children."

She warned that internal displacement, hate campaigns and threats of genocide were returning to the region.

At least 500 people have been killed and more than 250,000 people have been displaced since Kenya erupted in violence last week after the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki. Aid agencies are calling it a humanitarian crisis, and convoys of U.N. World Food Program trucks have headed for western Kenya to deliver food and supplies.

Allegations of rigging and electoral fraud sent the country into chaos, pitting many of Kenya's tribes against the Kikuyus, who have long dominated Kenya's economic and political power base.

John Karanja is a Kukuyu who was living in Burnt Forest, also in Western Kenya where the Kalenjin tribe is the majority. He says that within minutes of Kibaki's re-election he saw homes go up in flames all around him. Then it was he and his wife's turn to run. He says he was told by neighbors, and those he considered friends, that because he voted for Kibaki he was now the enemy.

"They said this is Kalenjin land. You have to get out," said Karanja. "I only have the clothes I have on now."

Both Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga have so far stayed committed to their positions, producing a political stalemate. But with the economy crashing, tourism waning and the country in chaos, there has been growing international and domestic pressure for a solution.

European Union observers, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and now U.S. envoy Jendayi Frazer have all met with the political leaders to try and find a peaceful solution to the crisis. Ghanaian President and African Union chairman John Kufuor will arrive later today in the hope of bringing the two leaders together.

Odinga has canceled a mass rally planned for today, alleviating fears of renewed violence, and agreed to meet Kibaki, Friday, in the presence of international mediators.

But the fear is that even if a political solution is found, it will be too late to heal the deep ethnic divide. When asked whether she will return to Eldoret, Nderitu had tears in her eyes. She said quietly but firmly, "No. I wouldn't ever go back there."

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