, ITEN, Aug 3 – In Kenya\’s Rift Valley, some communities among the worst hit by the 2007-2008 post-election chaos have fled to their ancestral homes ahead of Wednesday\’s referendum, fearing a fresh flare-up.
Iten, a dusty town near the northwestern hub town of Eldoret, is best known for producing generations of world-class long-distance runners but it was also in the epicentre of the chaos that left 1,500 dead across Kenya 30 months ago. At least 30 people were hacked to death in this small area alone.
Among the most exposed residents of Iten are HIV patients who need steady access to their drugs and the main clinic treating them in Iten, the US-funded AMPATH centre, has reported an exodus in recent days.
"We have noticed a steep decline in the numbers of patients coming in especially those from the Luo and Kikuyu communities", the medical officer-in-charge of the clinic said.
"Investigations show that they are fleeing to their ancestral homes in central Kenya and Nyanza province for fear of being attacked during the referendum period," he said on condition of anonymity.
Kenya\’s feared paramilitary General Service Unit, wearing their trademark garnet helmets and green protective padding, have been patrolling the streets for days but long-time resident George Omondi chose not to take any chances.
"I\’m HIV positive and love my country very much. But I cannot wait for the referendum date," the 30-year-old mechanic said before leaving town, clutching his voter\’s card and a pack of anti-retroviral drugs.
"I voted in 2008 and in the unexpected chaos that ensued, could not access my medicines because the clinic was closed and most workers had been forced to flee", he explained.
The new constitution being submitted to a popular referendum on Wednesday places checks on the president\’s power and makes the state\’s main institutions generally more democratic.
But the new text, one of the key items on the reform agenda agreed upon in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 chaos, also creates a commission tasked with reviewing land policies.
The backbone of the "no" camp in the referendum campaign is the locally-dominant Kalenjin tribe, whose leaders claim the new constitution would lead to taxation or even seizure of their land by the government, dominated by Kikuyus and Luos.
The Rift Valley is also turning into a battle ground for two of the frontrunners for the 2012 presidential election: Higher Education Minister William Ruto, a Kalenjin, and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a Luo.
Ruto, spearhead of the "no" campaign, held a mammoth rally in Iten last week.
He stirred up the crowd in the Kalenjin dialect, spoke of "community secrets", and his appeal for a peaceful referendum at the end of his harangue sounded almost like an after-thought.
Leaflets warning other communities of dire consequences have been surfacing, signed by a group calling itself "Kalenjin warriors".
"I am not taking chances," said George Omondi.
"Most of the HIV patients from the Luo community have taken enough stocks of medicines and I can assure you there will be fewer voters than anticipated here," he said.
"In 2008, peace was preached at daytime and war at night."
George and his wife teamed up with seven other people, hired a truck and left town over the weekend.
"Over 1,000 of our patients have insisted on taking a pile of stocks because they don\’t know what might happen. In 2008, we faced the same problems and 158 lives were lost prematurely," the AMPATH medic said.
"All roads were barricaded and we could not effect even our home-based care programme in the outlying villages. This is one example of how bad politics destroys gains made over a long time," he added.