KERICHO, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenya's large Rift Valley tea estates say they should weather political and ethnic violence targeting their work force, but it is cold comfort to the roughly 20,000 tea pickers who had to run for their lives.
They represent about a third of the 70,000 workers who bring in Kenya's largest cash crop in the heart of the east African nation's tea belt, a humid and green swathe of the west Rift.
But in what may be one of the only times in history farmers have considered drought lucky, fewer workers are needed right now as the tea suffers from its worst lack of rain in 25 years.
"Fortunately, this political unrest has come when there is drought where production has already dropped," said Titus Kuria, chairman of the Kenya Tea Growers Association that represents the large-scale plantations.
"If by about March when the rains come, the political situation is not stable, then workers won't come back and we'll lose a lot of crop," he said. "The prices obviously will go up."
Like other areas of the Rift where outside tribes have settled to work or farm, the green expanses of Kericho's tea fields erupted in violence after President Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of a disputed election on December 30.
What has sent workers fleeing for safety has been a combustible mix of political antagonism and ethnic animosity. Local Kalenjins chased away Kisiis and a handful of Kikuyus who work on the tea estates.
"The Kalenjins don't want them," barber Kimutai Kigen said. "People here feel disadvantaged, because the foreign tribes who came here to pick tea live under better conditions than them. They don't pay rent in company houses, they get benefits."
And there was a sense of revenge afoot, Kigen said, because pro-Kibaki Kisii youths earlier in the campaign assaulted opposition leader William Ruto, a Kalenjin blamed by refugees for organising the attacks on other tribes in the Rift.
Ruto, who first came to the political spotlight as treasurer of a youth group blamed for similar attacks surrounding 1992's elections, has denied wrongdoing.
"When they chased us, they said 'You go to Kibaki for work'," tea picker Jared Obonyo, one of several hundred Kisiis taking refuge in Kericho's Moi park while looking for transport home, told Reuters.
The first sign of trouble came when opposition leader Raila Odinga spoke in Kericho earlier in the campaign, workers said.
"He told the Kalenjins if he won, he would reduce the number of mzungus (white people) and he would divide the tea estates and give it to them," picker Andrew Maticha said, gathering firewood for a cold, wet night sleeping on the ground.
Such political promises based on ethnicity have been a feature of Kenyan politics since former President Daniel arap Moi mastered them as part of a divide-and-rule strategy that kept his regime in power from 1978 until 2002.
Kericho mostly avoided serious bloodshed that has killed at least 500 people nationwide, residents said.
But the stories they tell are the same as others targeted across the sea of destruction that now is the Rift: attackers coming in groups singing Kalenjin war songs, wielding bows and arrows and machetes, and giving a choice: departure or death.
Then the raiders -- neighbors among them -- took what they wanted from inside the houses and set them ablaze.
Some of the marauding took place inside the sprawling tea estates, including those owned by Unilever subsidiaries Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd and Brooke Bond, and George Williamson, residents and tea growers said.
But most damage was to workers' housing, storage facilities and equipment while leaf processing factories were largely untouched, industry officials said.
Unilever Tea Kenya Managing Director Richard Fairburn, who runs Kenya's largest tea plantation, said the company had lost 30 million Kenya shillings in damage to buildings and equipment.
"We're back to production now, the factories are running, we're able to get all the crop in, so we're basically back to normal," Fairburn told Reuters.
At James Finlay (Kenya), Kenya's second-largest grower, there was no damage and production had resumed despite a close call with trouble, Finance Executive Paul Wythe said.
"At one stage, about 1,000 people came onto our estate and our senior administration manager came out and talked to them in the middle of the night to calm them down," Wythe said.
For the past five days, small farms have been bringing their tea for processing, another sign of normalcy, he said.
Wythe said a handful of workers had said they wanted to leave: "We've asked them to have a think about it, and guaranteed their security."
But workers are not so sure: "We're going to get our pay, and go home," Obonyo said.
Additional reporting by Florence Muchori; editing by Alistair Thomson