Editorial
Report & Essay
BURNT FOREST

Report & Essay

BURNT FOREST
ARNO KOPECKY

 A few kilometers south of Burnt Forest, the ruins of a village called Kondo were visible from the highway. A group of six young men were picking through the ashes as we drove past; we stopped and climbed the small rise to join them.

They greeted us with open smiles, arms around each other’s shoulders as though we were meeting on a beach instead of a freshly razed collection of homes. They told us they lived in the countryside, gesturing into a green horizon split by thin lines of black smoke.

“Right after Kibaki was announced president, the Gikuyu started burning our farms,” said Kemboi Rutoni, a smooth-faced teenager.

“They called us goats” said his friend, who introduced himself only as Ken. “They’ve always hated us. They’ve always made life hard for the Kalenjin.”

“But we know how to defend ourselves,” added Kemboi. “We came back and burnt their houses, and told them to get out.”
The boys smiled as they recounted using mattresses to start the fires whose ashes lay everywhere around us. Kondo village, they told me, had been a mixed community, occupied by Kalenjin and Gikuyu alike.

“But we only burnt the Gikuyu houses,” said Kemboi. When I asked how it happened that all the rest went up in flames as well, they grew vague and returned to insisting that the Gikuyu had started the whole mess.

“But it’s over now,” said Ken indifferently. “They’re all sleeping up the road at Burnt Forest.”

Indeed they were – not just the former residents of Kondo, but some nine thousand survivors of a violence whose absurdity was matched only by its cruelty. The verdant hills of Burnt Forest have been described as the epicenter of Rift Valley’s recent chaos; the former residents of those hills are now camped in the yards of two churches, a high school and a police station.

We drove past those thousands of hungry gazes, chose a dirt road at random, and followed it into the countryside. Who knew what the sparse canopy surrounding us hid? Hardly anyone was in sight – a family washed their clothes on the banks of creek, eyeing us warily as we passed, but otherwise the landscape was abandoned.

The pitted road wound through the hills, and before long a tractor came toward us, pulling a flatbed stacked with white sacks of corn, bits of furniture, farm tools. Two soldiers sat beside the driver and a dozen ragged Gikuyu walked behind it. We stopped, and two of the men stopped to explain they had just visited their shambas for the first time in over a week. They were bringing back what little was salvageable. But they looked uneasily over their shoulders and soon hurried on to catch up with the guards.

About a kilometer on, the landscape opened on to a flat terrace of torched houses and maize fields. Much of the ground was singed black. Relics of domesticity were scattered about – a red toothbrush, a tea strainer, an English workbook inscribed with the name Lucy – but the predominant feature were the vivid piles of clothing that lay strewn everywhere, as though someone had emptied several wardrobes into the wind.

A man and woman sat beside the road in the shade of a bottle-brush tree. James Mwangi had owned a two-acre shamba of which nothing remained but half a sack of maize; Grace Muthoni, his neighbor, fared only slightly better in salvaging four bags from five acres.

They were both approaching forty and seemed remarkably calm, with the lean, patient mien of people who spend their lives outdoors. The presence of a handful of guards in the immediate area, they assured us, was keeping the neighbors at bay.
“I know every single person who did this to us,” said James, “I’ve shared meals with them.”

The two pointed a hundred meters down the road we’d just driven. Walking back, I smelled the black corpse before I saw it lying on the gravel, face up, the skin burnt off the skull to reveal a terrible grin. Another just like it lay a few feet away, twisted on its side in the tattered cornfield.

“It happened very suddenly,” David said. “The neighbors just started yelling, but instead of words coming out they only screamed.”

The two escorted me to Rurigi high school, where they and hundreds more Kikuyu had sprinted for safety when the attack began. Having herded them out of the way, their persecutors – young Kalenjin men like the ones I’d met two hours before – spent the rest of the night torching their properties and killing whoever was trapped outside. Finally, at dawn, the mob turned on the school itself.

“We were throwing rocks out the windows,” said Grace, “but all of us thought we would die.”

What saved them was a cell phone. One of the people trapped inside had been able to call the police during the night, and they arrived in time to clear the mob and escort everyone to the highway camps at Burnt Forest.

Grace wanted to show us another body nearby, but when we got there nothing was left but a few photographs lying face down in the dirt.

“The dogs must have eaten it already,” she said. She picked up the photos and turned them over. A few showed young men proudly holding up their high school diplomas; another framed a young mother with her newborn baby; one had a family smiling inexplicably in front of a military helicopter that was parked beside their home.

Grace smiled. “These people are still alive,” she said, “they will be happy to see their pictures.” But she changed her mind as we walked back to the road, or perhaps simply forgot what she was holding. When we reached the field’s edge, she opened her palm and let the contents drop like so many seeds to the earth.

Arno Kopecky is a Kenyan based Canadian Journalist

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