Family that can find no hiding place from Kenya's bloodstained elections

Run-up to voting brings return of the savagery seen before the last polls in 1992. James Roberts reports from Mombasa
For many Kenyans, the violent run-up to elections due to take place before the end of this year brings powerful feelings of deja vu. The government's tight grip on the media, the lack of an obvious challenger to President Daniel arap Moi, the apocalyptic political language, the flawed voter registration exercise and the bloodcurdling activities of mysterious militias in outlying parts of the country will all be familiar to those who remember the last time Mr Moi faced the people in 1992.

For some, though, the events now being experienced for the second time have a familiarity that is especially chilling. Edward Lusweti, holed up in the grounds of the Holy Ghost Cathedral in Mombasa, is one of these. In 1992, it was the Rift Valley where people were driven from their homes by the threat of armed raiders coming in the night to carry out atrocities. Today it is the coastal region around Mombasa. Mr Lusweti has the distinction of having been driven out of his home in Molo in the Rift Valley in 1992, and his home in Likoni near Mombasa just this week.

What is particularly disturbing is the similarity of the two experiences.

In 1992, the first indication that his house in Molo might be under threat was the appearance of pamphlets that said no non-Kalenjins were wanted in the area. That meant no Luos, no Luhya, no Kisi, no Kikuyus. President Moi is a Kalenjin. As a Bukusu, Mr Lusweti found himself in the unwanted category. So, late one night masked raiders - armed, as they were last week, with swords, guns, knives and the small axes that are used in butchery - tried to burn down his house while he and his family were inside. They set off explosives and poured petrol around the house.

The family felt the heat of the burning roof and Mr Lusweti's youngest daughter, Mary Anna, then three, started to cry. Mr Lusweti prevented his wife from screaming and kept the family inside the house. He knew if they ran out, they would be killed and hoped the brick walls would protect them for a while. He quietly opened his window at the back of the house, where he had planted some cypress trees. He, his wife and four children slipped out and hid in the stems and branches of the trees. Mary Anna was so acutely aware of the danger that she made no noise at all until it was almost dawn.

As the house burned, the raiders fired around it. Then a 5kg gas cylinder in the kitchen exploded. "God gave us refuge," said 40-year-old Mr Lusweti. "The wind was blowing through the trees and it blew the flames onto the raiders. The flames scattered them. Some were burned in their faces. They carried away one who had been burned in the face."

For the next five days, the Luswetis hid during the day and walked at night towards Timboroa, 30km away, and then onto Eldoret, where no one knew them and they could make plans to get to his ancestral home in Bungomo. Later, they heard that some of their former neighbours had taken refuge in St Mary's Church in Molo. Letters were dropped there warning that the refugees must not assume they were safe from attack because they were in a church. Then a raid followed in which five refugees were killed.

"Whatever happens now, I am very alert," said Mr Lusweti. He described the events that had brought him to this shed at the back of the cathedral.

First of all they got pamphlets, he said. This time they said "no non- Mijikenda" - that is no people who do not belong to the nine clans around the coast. Mr Lusweti's family was one of a number who rented rooms from a Likoni shopkeeper. However, this man was from outside the area and when the pamphlets came he closed his shop and went away. Most of the tenants remained, but were not made to feel any easier by the seemingly casual remarks dropped by their neighbours that "things were getting hotter".

One night just over a week ago, they got very hot. "We heard shooting and sorrowful cries," he said, "so we kept quiet. I turned off the lantern and ordered everyone to sleep. Near my bed, outside the bedroom, I heard people speaking. They were asking if the house in which I was staying belonged to coastal people. Some others said that it did."

After about five minutes, he again opened the window very quietly and saw a group of more than 80 people, armed much as they had been the last time. "They saw two people and told them to stop, but the two people - we found out later one was Kikuyo and one Luo - started running. They were scared. One man shouted, in Swahili, `if he doesn't stop, open fire'. Immediately I heard the sound of guns - three shots. Then I heard the raiders running. They stopped after 100m and started throwing stones at the houses, to see if people cried out, but no one cried. Then we heard dogs barking, and more shooting in the distance."

Mary Anna, now eight, was obliged to show nerves of steel throughout the hours of darkness for the second time in her life as the Luswetis kept their heads down and their lips sealed. At around 5am the relatives of the murdered men went out to collect the bodies and went to the police station. They found its roof had been blown off, and at least three policemen had been killed. It was later established that 10 policemen died as a result of that raid. Mr Lusweti made arrangements for his wife and children to leave the area.

Over the past few days, up to 100,000 people have taken the ferry out of Likoni and into Mombasa. President Moi set a deadline of last weekend for the return of the large haul of weapons that was stolen from the police station and the refugees were expecting the arrival of the ruthless General Service Unit who have a reputation for shooting first and not bothering to ask questions later. Their last bloody outing was in Nairobi on 7 July for the "Saba Saba" day demonstrations commemorating a Nairobi rally seven years ago in which 20 people were killed. This time at least nine died.

Meanwhile, parts of the coast are being converted from certain "opposition holds" to probable "government gains".

Tribal divisions hold key to power

Most of Kenya's 28,176,686 people belong to 13 tribes. About 22 per cent are Kikuyu, 14 per cent are Luhya, 13 per cent are Luo, 12 per cent Kalenjin, 11 per cent Kamba, 6 per cent is Gusii, 5 per cent Meru, 5 per cent Mijikenda.

The winning presidential candidate requires 25 per cent of the votes in five of the eight provinces. This is to ensure that Kenya is not dominated by any single tribe. The system works to the advantage of candidates from smaller tribes, who arouse less opposition. President Moi wins votes from many areas outside his own Kalenjin tribe. The country is divided also by languages and religious faith. The official language is Swahili, but 22 per cent of population speak Kikuyu as their mother tongue. English is an official language. Most of the population hold traditional African beliefs, though there are significant numbers of Christians and Muslims.