Kenyans recall the screams of the dying in burning church

Times Staff Writer

First, the attackers pelted the church with rocks to pin down the women, children and elderly people seeking shelter inside.

The armed men then slammed the church doors shut. They piled bicycles and mattresses outside the main entrance and blocked a smaller door at the back. They went about their business efficiently.

Inside the small Kenya Assemblies of God Church in Kiambaa, just outside the town of Eldoret in western Kenya, dozens of terrified people huddled together. They were Kikuyus, members of the tribe that has borne the brunt of the violence that followed last week’s disputed presidential election.


The attackers, members of the rival Kalenjin tribe, poured fuel on the mattresses and piled on dried maize leaves from a nearby field. Then they set the barricades alight and waited until the flames burned high.

The church turned into an oven.

On Wednesday, the day after the attack, witnesses and survivors came to collect their families’ belongings from the churchyard. In muted voices, they told their stories, reliving the horror.

There was so much screaming, said Samuel Mwangi, 34, who rushed to the church Tuesday to try to defend those trapped inside, that he could not distinguish the cries of the dying Kikuyu women and children from the clamor of Kalenjin women who came with the attackers to watch the slaughter.

President Mwai Kibaki’s electoral victory, seen by the opposition as fraudulent, triggered days of ugly tribal violence from western Kenya to the coast. Mobs of opposition supporters have attacked Kibaki’s fellow Kikuyus, burned houses, looted shops, hacked people’s heads off or slashed them with machetes. Tribal fighting has raged around Eldoret and in some slum areas of Nairobi, the capital.

The number of dead at the Kiambaa church was still unclear Wednesday. Many bodies were burned to ashes, according to a witness with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which recovered 17 corpses but estimated that 35 people had died. Accounts from witnesses such as Mwangi offer contradictory reports on the death toll.

Some people did manage to escape the flames.

Mwangi saw a woman break through the main entrance, a baby tied to her back. But the wrap holding the infant caught fire. As the mother leaped to safety, the baby fell back into the flames and died.

The mother “ran away, with her hair burning. She was screaming,” Mwangi said.

On Wednesday, the site was one of silent desolation. An acrid smell of ashes filled the air. Charred machetes, cooking pots and handbags were scattered on the ground beside children’s shoes: these small pink sandals fit a toddler; those running shoes, a child of 7 or 8.

Inside the church was a piece of a Bible page, burned around the edges.

Before the attack, as rumors tore through the district that Kalenjins were burning Kikuyus’ houses, the people of this small community reasoned that churches had often served as refuges in times of tribal tension.

But Kenya’s violence in recent days, which has left at least 275 people dead, has crossed an invisible line. For the first time, Kenyan newspapers are raising the example of Rwanda, where more than 800,000 people died in ethnic killings in 1994.

The current atrocities, dubbed by the government as “ethnic cleansing” of the dominant Kikuyus, are unexpected and deeply shocking to Kenyans.

“We didn’t think that they could burn them in the church. It is a terrible thing. I’ve never heard of that thing before,” Mwangi said. “They did something which we can’t imagine.”

From a helicopter over the district on Wednesday, roadblocks were visible, thrown up by tribal gangs every few hundred yards. Plumes of smoke rose where fields or houses were burning. The lush countryside was pocked with what looked like shadows: the ashes of hundreds of torched houses. In some areas every home was burned, while a neighboring area remained untouched -- the stripe of tribe upon the landscape.

In Nairobi slum districts, Kikuyus and Luos, a smaller tribe that for the most part backed the president’s rival, Raila Odinga, lived alongside each other and sometimes intermarried. But with the post-election violence, Luos were being driven from Kikuyu neighborhoods and vice versa. In the west of the country, hundreds of Kenyans have crossed the border to seek haven in Uganda.

Monday night, as violence swept Kenya, the men of Kiambaa armed themselves with machetes called pangas and stayed awake to defend their families in case of attack. Tuesday morning, they slept, exhausted after a night of fear. They woke to screams, as women warned that the enemy was approaching.

There were about 50 Kalenjins with bows and arrows and sharpened sticks. But as the Kiambaa men ran forward to fight, hundreds more attackers appeared.

“When these people came, there were so many that even with our pangas, there was nothing we could do,” Mwangi said.

After the church burned, he and others managed to get inside. There was not one recognizable face left. In death, mothers hugged children.

Mwangi struggled for words to explain why something so unthinkable happened. “I think it’s a grudge. It’s because of politics.”

Daniel Kibigo, 32, a mason, has a wife and two children. They stayed at home nearby when he ran to defend the church. When he returned home, he found that they had fled. He searched for them at the Catholic Cathedral in Eldoret, where hundreds are sheltering, but did not find them.

On Wednesday, he still did not know whether they were alive.

Kibigo’s brother, George, died Tuesday trying to rescue those in the church. He was cut down by men with pangas. He ran across a field, blood pouring from a gash on his head, before he collapsed.

“When I saw my brother was dead, and even now I don’t know where my family is, I feel as if I’m fed up with life,” Kibigo said. “My children, my mother, my wife, I don’t know where they are. I am just hoping they are alive.”

Daniel Mwangi, a disabled man of about 40 who normally used a wheelchair, tried to flee the attack on one leg and a crutch. He fell, shot by an arrow. Attackers piled maize leaves over him and set him afire.

The violence and burning have frightened and enraged many Kikuyus. For Samuel Mwangi, his neighbors on Tuesday became “our enemies.” But despite everything he saw, hate was a word he would not use.

Nor did he want revenge. “No, we want peace. We want to go back to our houses.”