Arson claimsThe arson claims were, however, dismissed by Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya. Instead, Mr Natembeya blamed the settlers of torching their own houses to try whipping up emotions. “No officer has burnt a house and if that is the current situation, then these people are burning old abandoned structures. It always happens when politicians visit,” said Natembeya. And in what appeared as softening of the strong stance the administrator had initially taken about the evictions, Natembeya yesterday said the families would be allowed to leave the forest land voluntarily. He said the use of force would only apply as a last resort. Natembeya further said the Government had decided that the 15 public schools he had last week said would be shut down be reopened. “The Government has resolved to open all the schools so as not to be seen like we don’t care. Children will continue going to the schools as the process of eviction goes on, since the exercise will not be done at a go. It will take us 60 days,” he said in what seemed like a change of hardline stance earlier taken. Last week, Natembeya had said none of the schools would be reopened for the third term, a move that was greatly castigated by a section of politicians opposed to the planned evictions. Yesterday, Natembeya said Ng’eno and Lang’at, who were arrested in the company of other leaders drawn from the local community, attempted to remove a block erected on the road leading to the forest. “They defied an order not to cross into the area that we have zoned-off as a Government forest and engaged officers in a confrontation,” said Natembeya. He declared the area where the Government intends to evict the settlers from a security zone, saying no one would be allowed to set foot in the forest to incite settlers who had been allowed to leave voluntarily. His position was, however, contradicted by officers at Narok Police Station, where the leaders were whisked and detained. Police said the two intended to incite locals against heeding the Government’s directive to leave the forest. County Police Commander Adan Yunis said they were holding the two leaders but could not reveal what charges would be preferred against them or when they would be arraigned. “It is true we are holding the two. Investigations are on and we shall brief you when we complete,” Mr Yunis told The Standard on the telephone.
Fact-finding missionNg’eno told The Standard he was in the company of Narok Deputy Governor Evalyn Aruasa and two Bomet MPs — Brighton Lang’at (Konoin) and Gideon Koskei (Chepalungu), and were on a fact-finding mission on closure of the 15 schools when they were nabbed. “We were in a convoy heading to Olmekenyu, specifically Kirobon Primary School, to check whether children had reported to school so that we counsel them. But 100km away police stopped and started harassing us,” said Koskei. Ng’eno said they asked the police why they were being blocked from getting to their destination, which was still far away. “The officers were violent; they attacked some of the members of our entourage before hitting the rear windscreen of MP Ng’eno’s car,” said Koskei. By the time of going to press yesterday, the two leaders were still in custody. The arrest attracted the attention of local leaders, who thronged the police station in solidarity with the duo, complaining that the charges pressed against them were “outrageous”. “The charge sheet is out and we are shocked. They are charging them with obstructing police operations, incitement and holding illegal meetings. Where we were, there were no people and we wonder where the meeting was,” said Koskei. Back at the Mau Forest, tension continued to rise after the burning of the houses. Nelson Kipkorir, a resident, said the officers burnt the houses hours after a chopper left a local camp. The chopper is said to have carried Narok County Commissioner Samuel Kimiti. “It is immediately after the chopper left that smoke from burning houses filled the air. Screams were all over, as locals ran for their safety,” Mr Kipkorir said. He said nothing could be salvaged from the houses, as most people sought refuge far away. Samuel Langat, another resident, said he just saw smoke billowing and on checking, established that houses were being razed. The KFS officers, he said, had asked locals to start demolishing their houses as the area was an operation zone. He said the officers had allowed given them one day to vacate the area failure to which they would be evicted. The orders he said were issued verbally yesterday. Settlers have started leaving the forest land, as they fear there more attacks by officers. Women and children carrying pieces of luggage they could salvage could be seen moving. Erick Bett, a resident, said the situation was getting worse as days went by, adding that Government treated them inhumanely.
Issue politicisedBett’s worry was that the Mau issue had over the years been politicised and residents later exposed to suffering. He said the area had chiefs and other Government officials, an indication that the State recognised it as a settlement. The locals urged the Government to come clean on the cut-line issue instead of having people evicted every year. Natembeya urged the affected people not to leave out of fear, but in acknowledgement that they had encroached the forest. “Phase Two (of evictions) is not just removing people, it entails a lot. We have to erect a fence round the forest, plant trees and get rid of human activities. Eviction will come in as the last resort. As of now, we encourage people to leave voluntarily,” said Natembeya.