22 April 2009

Kenyan Town Strikes Back Against Its Tormenters


Published: April 21, 2009

KARATINA, Kenya — Just after dusk on Monday, the residents gathered, armed with clubs, machetes and traditional spears.

They said they were sick of paying extortion taxes, sick of fearing for their girls and sick of living under the thumb of the Mungiki, an intensely secretive Kenyan group that is part street gang, part Mafia, with an added touch of the occult.

And so the people of Karatina decided to strike back. Under the cover of darkness, a mob of hundreds of young men who were paid by elders, according to several residents, swept across this lush green tea-growing area that seems more like a slice of Eden than a killing field and rounded up dozens of men suspected of being Mungiki members.

The mob pummeled the men suspected of being thugs, and this normally tranquil spot exploded into a melee of killings and counterkillings that left nearly 30 people dead. Witnesses said some victims were beaten beyond recognition.

The evidence was on display on Tuesday. The mud roads were still sticky with blood, and children carefully tiptoed around the broken sticks tipped in red.

“You know how it is,” said Joseph Wambui, a gasoline vendor in Karatina. “When a mob gathers, there is no stopping them.”

The violence on Monday was one of the first times that a community in Kenya had risen up in such an organized way to drive out the Mungiki, which seems to thrive in rural areas and overcrowded slums where the Kenyan government does not quite reach.

Mob justice is often the people’s answer to law enforcement, but this episode seemed to mark a new level of vigilantism, and the authorities are worried that things may spin out of control.

“We don’t want anybody to take revenge,” said Eric Kiraithe, a Kenyan police spokesman. “We’re just asking for people to tell us who the criminals are and we will arrest them.”

The Mungiki seems to be protected by a wall of silence. Few in this town, about 70 miles north of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, wanted to say anything about the gang. The Mungiki is part of the community’s fabric. Several residents said in hushed tones that they did not know who was a member and who was not. It is not like the Mungiki’s members wear uniforms, they said.

The Mungiki started in the 1980s as a self-defense force for the Kikuyu ethnic group, Kenya’s largest. Gang members modeled themselves after the Mau Mau, Kenya’s independence fighters who wore dreadlocks, took secret oaths and waged a hit-and-run guerrilla war against British colonizers.

By the late 1990s, the Mungiki went urban, taking over Nairobi’s minibus trade. Then it diversified into garbage collection, building materials and eventually the protection racket.

In Karatina, a predominantly Kikuyu area, the Mungiki extorted a dollar a day from bicycle taxi drivers, police officials said. The gang made women who sell freshly squeezed milk by the roadside hand over 20 percent of their profits. Anyone who wanted to build a stone house, a luxury here, had to pay the gang $15.

“If you didn’t pay, they killed you,” said Wachira Muthiga, an electrician.

The Mungiki is blamed for dozens of beheadings, and its members are widely believed to drink blood as part of their initiation rituals.

On Tuesday, many Karatina residents were bracing for revenge.

One boy was even sleeping with his friends in the forest, scared that the Mungiki would come and pluck him out of bed.

“We’re in grave danger,” he said.

The police were sending in reinforcements, and on Tuesday evening, a truckload of heavily armed officers rumbled into town. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed. But few people seemed willing to test the darkness. This time, when the sun set, the mud roads were clear.