Illegal settlers in the controversial Mau forest started streaming out of the resource Monday to avoid a major confrontation with law enforcement officers deployed to execute an eviction order.
The movement came as Kenya Forest Services (KFS) officers arrived at Sierra Leone, Nkoben, and Olpusimoru South areas ready to effect the order as they await the expiry of a 60-day notice that expires in October.
The order requiring the illegal settlers to vacate the vital water tower was issued last week by Rift Valley Regional Coordinator George Natembeya.
Some of the settlers, frightened by the show of might as the heavily armed KFS officers arrived in several lorries and in the backdrop of a history of brutal evictions, opted to peacefully move out.
A number of them quietly packed their belongings and trooped out of their homes, said to be within forest boundaries. However, others vowed to stay put.
The Nation team arrived at Sierra Leone and witnessed some of the settlers moving towards Mulot on the border of Narok and Bomet counties, while others crossed through Olpusimoru forest towards Olengurone and Chepakundi in Nakuru County.
And with schools re-opening for the Third Term on Monday, it was a bad day for more than 5,000 pupils in 15 schools, which remained shut with teachers being given a stern warning by KFS officers against allowing anyone into the institutions.
A resident, Mr Wilson Kimutai, said KFS officers swarmed into the schools as early as 6am and ordered the teachers to release the students who had already reported to school.
Some of the schools affected include Kirobon, Senetwet, Kapsibilwo, Kitoben, Indianit, Kabarak, Noosogami, Chorwet, Ogilgei, Sebetet, Olabai, Koitabai, Chebirbelek, Chebetet and Lelechwet.
Mr Kimutai noted that it cost taxpayers more than Sh60 million to put up the facilities. "KFS officers went to Sierra Leone Primary School on Sunday, then Sabetet primary School on Monday and took charge. Those affected still do not know what to do next since most of the schools were built using government funding,” he said.
In the villages, settlers were huddled in small groups, discussing the impending evictions in low tones.
At one point, as a vehicle ferrying some of the KFS officers zoomed past a crowd at Sierra Leone trading centre, some of the villagers shouted at them, protesting their presence.
Mr Wisley Kipyegon, one of the residents, while displaying his five-acre parcel’s title deed, vowed to stay put.
"I was brought up here in the 60's. I sired my nine children here. I have a title deed given to me by the government. What is this that Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko is talking about that we are here illegally? I will only leave this place over my dead body," said Mr Kipyegon.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Ms Rinah Tanui, a mother of seven. She argued that she had no other home after her husband bought their five-acre plot in 1998.
"I’m shocked at what the government is doing. Our children have been warned against setting foot in their school. We have a genuine title which has now been dismissed as fake. What do these people want?” she posed.
The evictions are supposed to pave the way for the rehabilitation of the 46,000-hectare Maasai Mau Forest, which is one of the 22 blocks within the Mau Complex.
A Kenya Water Towers Agency report indicates that when verification of landowners was done in 2009, only 430 settlers in the area had genuine title deeds.
Those who spoke to the Nation expressed fear that the government will kick them out by force as was witnessed during a similar exercise in 2005 and 2007.
Rift Valley regional commissioner Goerge Natembeya and newly-posted Narok County commissioner Samuel Kimiti have maintained that it will be difficult for the government to effectively protect the forest if Sierra Leone, Kass FM and Kipchoge settlements remain.
"The settlements should be vacated and all routes sealed to secure it," said Mr Natembeya during a recent press briefing.
Another resident of Sierra Leone, Mr Josephat Langat, also said he bought his land in 1999 and denied having encroached into the forest land.
“We are always shocked and disturbed to hear that we are squatters. Before we bought the land, we did a search at the Ministry of Lands. The parcels we bought had title deeds,” he said.
He wants the Lands registry in Narok to be held responsible for the mess.
The KFS superintendent in charge of the Sierra Leone camp, Mr Stephen Chesa, said they would secure the forest to protect it from further degradation. He denied forcing the closure of schools.
Mr Tobiko said the evictions must go on, and argued that the Maasai Mau - being trust land under the Narok County government - is a gazetted water tower.
He said the area targeted for evictions was declared Crown Land in the 1930s and made a National Reserve in 1945 before it was officially gazetted in 1954 as a Forest Reserve under the Forest Act.
“As far as I am concerned, there are no records available showing when this law was changed for the Maasai Mau to be a settlement scheme of any sort,” he said.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Maa community have condemned attacks by Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruiyot targeted at Mr Tobiko over the looming evictions.
Led by Kajiado Governor Joseph ole Lenku, the Maasai leaders want those living in the Mau to be evicted as per the government’s orders. “People must get out of the Mau,” Mr Ole Lenku said in a press briefing.
He was joined by Narok Senator Ledama ole Kina, Kajiado Senator Philip Mpaayei and former Nairobi County assembly Speaker Alex ole Magelo.
They criticised the senator, stating that an attack on the CS is as good as an attack on the President, and legal action should be taken.
Additional reporting by Claire Wasilwa and Sarah Nanjala