CHEBILAT, Kenya (Reuters) - The Kalenjin militiamen emerged from across the maize fields and, having sharpened their machetes and checked their quivers were full of arrows, said they were ready to do battle.
Across the road, the Kisii had taken a beating over the last few days but they regrouped with reinforcements and then prowled the main road, looking for the enemy, determined to retake the torched village.
Piercing war cries then rang out as hundreds of fighters shot arrows and hurled rocks and sharpened sticks at each other, torching buildings not already razed to the ground.
A handful of policemen fired a few shots and then looked on as the clashes raged.
The pitched battle in western Kenya on Sunday was just one episode in violence that has rocked the country and, although initially over disputed elections, has degenerated into tribal clashes over land, wealth and plain old revenge.
Over 900 people have been killed and another 300,000 displaced by bloodshed that has dented Kenya’s reputation as a haven of stability and economic progress in the region.
“We voted and our candidate won,” said Kalenjin warrior Antony Chepkwony, a supporter of opposition leader Raila Odinga, as he showed off his poisoned arrows before the fighting began.
“Without Raila, we are demanding our rights and justice,” he said. Odinga has rejected the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki in a December 27 poll most observers said was flawed.
Under intense international pressure, the two men have entered into negotiations in Nairobi but the handshakes and sound bites about peace appear to ring hollow among the warriors out in the Rift.
Politics have been the trigger for ethnic conflict that had lain beneath the surface.
A group of Kalenjin continued what they described as their “work,” collecting straw, dousing it in petrol and torching the Faith Medical Centre.
When asked why they set fire to the clinic, a young fighter standing guard said: “Because it belongs to a Kisii.”
“All these Kisii, we will kill them,” said another.
“When we finish this war, we will go after Kibaki,” said a third.
In Chebilat, the Kisii, who are perceived to be close to Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, say they are being chased off land they legally bought long ago.
“I have the title deeds and I have been here for 20 years. But my house is there, up in flames,” said Kisii businessman Danson Otouri as he watched arrows rain down nearby.
“They sold us the land but now they are jealous. They want us out of the Rift Valley.”
Violence in Chebilat has killed at least two and over 20 people have ended up in hospital with arrow wounds.
A Reuters reporter at the scene saw just one casualty — a man who winced as friends removed an arrow point from his foot.
The United States says the clashes in the Rift Valley constitute ethnic cleansing. Violence there has forced many to salvage belongings and return to their ancestral homelands.
Sunday’s battle was won by the Kisii, who forced the Kalenjin to disperse across the fields.
But evidence emerged to suggest that at least some of Kenya’s violence is not just the spontaneous anger of local youths but is fuelled by local politicians and elders.
Witnesses saw trucks bring in groups of armed Kisii before fighting began. A white pickup ferried pans of maize meal and vats of milk to feed the Kalenjin before the battle.
Kenya’s government has vowed to crack down on the violence but policemen looked on helplessly in Chebilat. “Both sides are well-organized. I don’t know who, but someone is behind it,” sighed a policeman.
Editing by Bryson Hull