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NAROK, 6 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - Ezekiel Lang'at vividly remembers the day in early June that a group of security guards and policemen stormed his home near Mau Forest in Narok District, southwestern Kenya.
"This is not your farm - you have to leave," they ordered him before torching his houses.
Lang'at is one of thousands of Kenyan families who have been left homeless following a government decision to evict them, without compensation, from farms allegedly carved out of the forest.
According to the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), an estimated 3,000 families, or between 20,000 and 30,000 people, lost their homes and livelihoods when the evictions were carried out.
"It was a merciless exercise," said Lang'at, 57, a former tea estate manager, who bought his family home on a 30-acre farm in 2003.
"Now I have nowhere to go, and it has even become difficult to find food," he said. "There should be no evictions. The government should help us stay on our farms - we are not squatters, we bought these farms."
His plight is similar to that of many small-scale farmers expelled from the lush surroundings of the Mau Forest, the source of several rivers and streams running across the semi-arid plains that form Kenya's wildlife-rich Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
The evictions started in June after two-months' notice to vacate the farms expired.
Most of the homes were either burnt or demolished by security guards from the Narok County Council, the official guardian of the forest. They were accompanied by administration policemen, according to Wilson Ng'eno, who also lost his farm.
The evictions had the backing of the Ministry of Lands. "The decision to evict followed a six-month study by a government task force that looked into the problem of encroachment in Mau forest," Mary Ngaruma, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Lands and Housing, told IRIN.
She said the government had not ignored the plight of those evicted and would "work out a plan" to resettle people who could prove they had no other plots of land. It was not immediately clear how soon a solution would be found.
"We are sleeping in the open in shopping centres and churches. Some families are sharing homes with friends or relatives whose homes were not identified as part of the forest," Ng'eno, a 55-year old father of eight, said.
"We are not receiving aid, yet when we go to our farms to harvest our maize and potatoes they beat us and rape the women. How are we expected to survive?" Ng'eno added.
The only significant aid so far has come from the KRCS. From 24 to 26 June the agency distributed blankets, tarpaulins, bednets, soap, kitchen sets, jerry cans and an assortment of medicines and baby clothes to the evictees in Saptet and Ol Mekenyu villages in Narok district.
"We are planning additional relief assistance, especially to people camped in schools and the sick," Mwangi said, adding that antibiotics, dewormers and basic immunisation drugs for infants and children were required. Sanitation facilities also had to be set up in areas where people had sought shelter.
Not even health facilities were spared by the demolition squads. "My clinic was burned down. I only managed to escape with the blood pressure monitor," said Zeddy Towett, 27, a nurse who owned a 60-bed nursing home that employed three other nurses and a laboratory technician.
"My children have now been expelled from school for lack of school fees," Towett added.
Jonathan Bore, 50, claimed most of those who had lost their homes were members of the Kipsigis and Kisii ethnic groups from Nandi, Kericho, Kisii and Nyamira districts in western Kenya.
They had bought the land from members of the Maasai community, who had reportedly been allocated the plots by the Narok County Council.
Some of those expelled said they had lived on the farms since the 1970s, but according to Daniel Twala, the Narok County Council treasurer, most of the people had settled in Mau Forest between 1998 and 2000.
"I was born in Narok, my father bought the land in 1985," Mica Lang'at, 28, said. "The question I would like to ask the government is: 'Where will I go now? I have never relied on aid; I have been working hard, yet I am being asked to leave. Where will we keep our children?'"
Eight primary schools, 36 churches and several shops were destroyed during the evictions, according to those living in the area. An assessment by the KRCS showed that some 3,000 pupils were out of school, Anthony Mwangi, the society's spokesman, said.
"Our children are roaming about with no schools to go to and the government has given us nothing," Ng'eno said. "We are appealing for aid because we have been left with nothing."
Juliana Bii, 47, said she and her family of seven were spending their nights by the roadside. "They burnt our house, the sofa set, the beds and the food that was in the store. It is very cold at night and in the morning."
"I saw the askaris [security guards] coming and I started to run - I fell and hurt my leg. I watched them from a distance as they burned my house," recalled Sabina Kirui, nursing a swollen leg in the makeshift shelter of an acquaintance who had allowed her husband and their seven children to use it.
"I am unable to take my wife to hospital - I have no money and food has become a problem," Sabina's husband, Jackson, added. "We spent 800,000 shillings [US $10,470] three years ago to build the house that was burnt."
Twala said the Narok County Council could not compensate the evicted subsistence farmers because they had obtained their title deeds "fraudulently" from people who had encroached on the forest. "They [the farmers] should try to get back their money from those who sold the land to them," he advised.
"Mau was a gazetted forest and a catchment area for seven rivers, which were drying up because of the settlements - even the Tanzanians are complaining," Twala added. "The Council and the government are determined to rehabilitate the forest."
He noted that 100 million shillings [$1.3 million] would be needed to replant trees in the cultivated forest area, and that the council was seeking donor assistance for the exercise.
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