Elegeiyo Maraket, Kenya — Hundreds of Sengwer indigenous people - among them children, women and the elderly - are camping in the cold outside Kenya's western Embobut forest after they were evicted by armed forest warders and police, who have burned down more than 1,000 homes in the past two weeks.
The Kenyan government says the forest dwellers must leave so that the forest ecosystem can be restored, and maintains it has paid compensation to help people settle elsewhere.
But desperate families who have lost most of their possessions are now living without basic necessities on nearby roadsides. Evictee Margaret Chebor said there is not enough food or water. "We are now in fear of contracting infectious diseases - we are getting overcrowded," she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We don't have a place to call home apart from the forest - we have been evicted by our own government, (and) we are in a deplorable condition," she said. Older people and children have some shelter in temporary structures built of animal skins and sticks, while younger men are sleeping under trees, she added.
But even their makeshift homes are not safe. Evictee Thomas Kiprono said security forces have also been pulling these down. "We don't know what do to - they have also threatened to arrest us if we built another structure," he said in tears.
Johnstone Kimutai described how armed troops arrived early one morning and quickly set fire to several shelters on the outskirts of the forest. "When they approached one of the homes, a woman shouted, "Stop!" Another woman was in labour pains in one of the huts," he said.
A traditional birth attendant had decided to help the woman give birth since the heath centre was kilometres away. Armed officers continued burning houses nearby, but left the women's shelter alone and disappeared into the forest, witnesses said.
One member of the police eviction team, who declined to be named, said he and colleagues had been given orders to burn down houses and evict those who refused to leave the forest.
"We wake up at 3am everyday to start the process - it's very cold up the hill, I sympathise with them (the evictees) but we have no option but to execute the (official) mandate," he said.
CALL FOR AID
Many evicted families, mostly from the indigenous Sengwer community, insist they have been excluded from the government's compensation scheme, and have vowed to camp near the forest until they are given new land.
"We are ready for the worst for the sake of our ancestral land," said one evictee who preferred to remain anonymous. "We are yet to experience bloodshed, but if this issue of Embobut is not addressed amicably, it's very dangerous. How can you tell me to come out of the forest without showing me any alternative land?"
Paul Kaptuga, a father of two, said security forces had stolen people's property during the eviction. "Several of my sheep disappeared mysteriously - I suspect the armed policemen stole it for food," he added.
His family's home and possessions, including his children's books and school uniforms, were burned. "Now they have nothing to put on - we were not compensated either," he said with emotion. "It's a double tragedy to me. I don't know what will come next for me and my family."
Kaptuga's 81-year-old grandmother is now coughing in the cold outdoor conditions. "We fear she will get pneumonia, we don't have anything to cover her at night," he said.
Stephen Cheboi, coordinator of the North Rift Human Rights Network based in the nearby town of Eldoret, called on aid agencies and others to offer emergency assistance.
"(Evictees) are using hides and twigs to cover themselves from the cold. The situation might worsen if the rain starts," he added.
LOCAL LEADERS PROTEST
Local leaders, meanwhile, have criticised the government for sanctioning home-burning. "This is a primitive way of evicting people," said Elgeiyo Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen.
Some politicians have urged the government to refrain from using force during the eviction process.
But Inspector Stephen Chessa, who is leading the eviction, defended his staff. "We have not burned anyone's home - they themselves (the Sengwer) burned their houses before leaving the forest," he said, adding that neighbours had set each other's dwellings on fire in one case.
Senator Murkomen said local leaders had asked the government to pay compensation to evictees who were initially left out. "The authorities should help and resettle them in new locations and facilitate children who have been affected to resume learning," he said.
County Commissioner Arthur Osiya argued that people must go because the forest has become "extremely depleted".
"All the families were compensated and have to leave the forest so that the (forest) rehabilitation and conservation process can kick off," he said in a telephone interview.
Some evictees are coming out of the forest during the day and going back at night, making it difficult for officers, Osiya alleged.
On Thursday, communities were issued with a seven-day ultimatum to move their livestock out of the forest or risk the animals being auctioned off, the commissioner said during a visit to the forest.
FLOUTING COURT ORDERS
Sengwer spokesperson Yator Kiptum said the government had carried on burning his community's homes despite an interim injunction granted by an Eldoret court aimed at stopping the evictions. Forcefully kicking the community off their ancestral land would violate the Kenyan constitution and international rights laws, he said.
"We are planning to file for contempt of court against the government and those responsible for the ongoing burnings and harassment," he added.
The Sengwer are ready to negotiate with the government about protecting the forest, but only if they are allowed to return to their land, he emphasised.
On a visit to Eldoret, the Principal Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Richard Lesiyampe, said on Thursday that the government is engaging with Sengwer community members who were left out of the first phase of compensation to enable them to buy land for resettlement.
All those who have left the forest did so voluntarily, to move to a place of their choice, and officers have not burned down houses, Lesiyampe insisted.
"If the security team used force to evict the Sengwer, that was wrong and against the law," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Some forest dwellers say they are not yet ready to leave because they have not been able to find new land on which to resettle.
"Those who were compensated said they still had not gotten land to purchase and had pleaded with the Kenya Forest Service to be allowed more time to look for alternative land," said John Chemweno, an evictee now camping along the road.
Chemweno said the government should have considered extending the eviction deadline as local communities do not traditionally buy and sell land. "Twenty one days is inadequate for us to get land, and build a house before moving our property there," he lamented.
Caleb Kemboi is an environmental and climate change reporter based in Eldoret, in Kenya's Rift Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org