The flow of 'illegal settlers' out of the 146,000-hectare Maasai Mau Forest has started, a day after the government deployed a contingent of security officers ready to evict them.
The settlers, frightened by the show of forces and a history of brutal evictions, appealed to the government to give them alternative land even as they packed their belongings, and trooped out of their homes in the forest.
The government is targeting about 12,000 illegal settlers.
In what is becoming a possible humanitarian disaster, hundreds of families are now camping at Set-Apart Ministries Church, Holistic Church and Osotua Primary School at Kapkulu trading centre adjacent to the forest.
The families lack food and other basic needs after they left their homes over the weekend.
In the second day of the operation, more than 300 houses have already been demolished with the evictions expected to take 10 days.
By Sunday evening, 177 houses had been destroyed in addition to 156 others destroyed on Saturday, bringing the total to 333.
In Kosia, Septonok and Nkoben villages, which are among the areas targeted for evictions, residents had by Sunday evening started moving out in panic with their belongings, including livestock, household goods, children and pets.
In Nkoben village, farmers were packing up and moving away, while others were on rooftops demolishing their houses before the multi-agency team comprising of officers from Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and Administration Police Rapid Deployment Unit reaches the area.
After weeks of dithering in the hope that the government’s resolve would crumble, the arrival of armed rangers in their villages seemed to have finally persuaded some villagers that there was little to be gained by staying put.
About 300 officers from KFS, KWS, Narok County government rangers and the police were deployed in the area on Saturday afternoon and pitched a camp at Nkoben in the Maasai Mau area.
The officers led by the Mau Regional Commander David Mutoro maintained that their job is to provide security and that they will only kick out those who will be reluctant to move from that section of the forest.
As fear of evictions continued spreading, the villagers came out with the little they could carry, leaving behind homes, property and a ripening maize crop.
Their main concern was the maize in their farms, which most of them were looking forward to harvesting in a few months.
Those interviewed by the Nation said they had lived in the forest for decades and evicting them has left them as internally displaced persons.
“We are not against moving out, but where to?” posed 60-year-old Joel Chirchir who claims to have settled in the forest in1980.
Mr Chirchir, who is a father of 25 children and 40 grandchildren, said the 11.5 acres he lived in was his family’s only possession which he bought for Sh1.5 million.
He appealed to the government to consider giving those affected alternative land.
Mr Paul Koech and Christine Kirui who moved from their homes in Ololulung’a to buy land in the forest in 2000 vowed to continue staying at the now developing IDP camp at Kapkulu trading centre until they are given alternative land by the government.
“We are not sure what happened with our government. Why evict us like thieves from our homes? Our children are suffering in the cold, we have no food and shelter. We call on the national government to tell us where to go,” said Mr Koech.
The evictions come hardly a week after Deputy President William Ruto, while on a two-day tour of the area, said the government plans to issue title deeds to Mau Forest settlers and rebuild 15 schools that were demolished in the 2005 eviction but said that those who have encroached on the key water tower will be evicted.
Mr Ruto said the government has allocated Sh60 million to ensure the schools re-open.
Speaking at Sogoo High School in Narok South, the Deputy President supported the eviction of illegal settlers, reiterating that environmental conservation is crucial for the country.
“In the Mau Forest we have a clear cutline. All those beyond the cutline who have encroached the forest must be evicted. Mimi sitaki mchezo (I am not joking); we agreed about this. Only those who have not encroached the forest will be issued with title deeds,” said DP Ruto.
It is after these remarks that another round of evictions kicked off at the section of the expansive Mau complex which straddles several counties and is Kenya’s biggest forest.
The complex covers about 400,000 hectares and is the biggest single block of forest in East Africa.
Residents say the Mau Forest issue has been turned to a political tool.
"We are victims of bad politics. We were evicted in 2005 after the 2002 polls as well as in 2008 after the 2007 elections. We voted in 2013 and in 2015, there was eviction. It is the same now," said Mr Paul Koech, an affected resident.
Narok County Commissioner George Natembeya maintains that the government will continue with the evictions until all those who have encroached on the restricted areas of the forest are out.
He said those who will resist will be arrested and prosecuted for trespassing on government land.
The administrator said, illegal logging is still rampant in the forest.
The Nation established that mushrooming of group ranches in the Maasai Mau trust land paved the way for the forest’s encroachment.
The Task Force on Mau Forest Conservation traced the genesis of these settlements to 1999 when Sisiyan, Nkaroni, Enoosokon, Enakishomi and Reyio group ranches applied for permission to subdivide their land.
After this was granted, government officers, politicians, private surveyors and influential people irregularly increased the sizes of the ranches and the “excess land” was then sold to unsuspecting outsiders.
By 2005, the illegal extension into the Maasai Mau Forest had created 1,962 titled parcels of land spread over 14,103.7 hectares.