Demolitions and evictions in Makima, Embu County, have rendered hundreds of people homeless.
Heavily armed police descended on Ndunguni, Twanyonyi, Muthithu, Kituneni, Nunga and Mwanyani villages in the expansive Mbeere South Constituency, accusing the residents of encroaching on 66,000 acres of land belonging to Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (Tarda).
One person was shot and seriously injured during the operation, while Mbeere South MP Geoffrey King'ang'i and nine journalists were arrested and locked up at Matuu Police Station in the neighbouring Machakos County for questioning.
They were released on Sunday.
The police said they were enforcing a court order that Tarda obtained against residents who had been living in the area and growing crops along the Masinga and Kiambere dams.
On February 16, Tarda's acting Managing Director Emilio Mugo issued a notice for the residents to leave the area immediately ahead of the evictions.
According to Tarda, the notice followed a court order for evictions to pave way for the demarcation of the disputed parcel of land.
It said the order was issued after it won a long court battle against the people.
Tarda farm manager Ronald Makenzie explained that the land was acquired in 1974 for the construction of Masinga dam but that residents invaded it and started using it unlawfully.
"We have documents showing the land belongs to us," he said.
Mr Makenzie said that after many years of the legal tussle, the Embu Land and Environment Court ruled in favour of the Authority and issued an eviction order.
But the residents noted that they settled on the land decades ago and will never leave.
They claimed highly influential personalities who want to grab the land were behind the evictions but Mr Makenzie however dismissed this as propaganda.
They said they divided their community land for the construction of the dams so Tarda should not pursue their eviction.
"We are being treated like squatters on our own land. This is unacceptable, " said one Elizabeth Syombua.
Mary Nyengene said: "Even after giving part of our land to Tarda, we were not compensated and are now being threatened with eviction. I was born and brought up on this land therefore I'm not going to allow anyone to intimidate me."
No title deeds
The MP alleged a plot to grab the land at the expense of the poor.
"Senior people want to illegally take over the land and displace residents who have been struggling to survive. I'm the voice of the residents so I must speak out," said Mr King'ang'i.
The dispute has existed since the 1970s with both Tarda and the residents, majority of them from the Kamba and Mbeere communities, claiming ownership.
Residents from the arid Mbeere South moved to the land to grow crops for their survival, using the water from the dams and Athi River.
Asked whether they had documents to prove land ownership, they alleged that the government refused to issue title deeds.
"We have been asking the government to give us title deeds but it has been adamant," one said.
Kiambere MCA Lenny Masters Mwaniki called for dialogue to resolve the dispute.
Mr Mwaniki said although the people do not have title deeds, they should be allowed to continue using the land because it is located where there is plenty of water for irrigation.
"Residents suffer due to a shortage of water in the dry Mbeere South so they should not be kicked out of the land where there is plenty of the essential commodity. They are fighting for survival," he said.
Makima MCA Philip Nzangi accused the government of mistreating its own people.
"Residents have been clobbered and injured during the evictions. This is unacceptable," he said.
Nominated MP Cecily Mbarire, who narrowly escaped arrest, also hit out at the government over the forcible evictions.
She accused the government of throwing residents out of their ancestral land.
Narrating their ordeal, some of the residents said they had lived on the land for decades and that they don't know any other home.
"We settled on this land many years ago and had been going about our business peacefully before Tarda's interference," said one Peter Musyimi.
The residents said the majority of them were born and brought up there and asked the government to be realistic.
"We have even buried our relatives on this land yet we are being chased away by the government we elected," Elizabeth Mwongeli said.
Mbeere South deputy county commissioner Charles Igiha said he was away at the time of the evictions and could therefore not issue a comment.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) said it was wrong to carry out the evictions amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The KHRC said a petition at the High court sought to prevent the operation and that the people should be spared.
Placing the number of affected families at 3,000, the commission asked Tarda and police to suspend the exercise until an alternative location is found for the residents.