NAIROBI, Kenya – Hundreds of people fled a Nairobi shantytown on Friday, picking their way through a maze of dusty streets as they accused police of terrorizing the innocent in their crackdown on an outlawed gang.
While many in Mathare acknowledge the shadowy Mungiki sect does operates from slum, they also said police were indiscriminately rounding up residents and demolishing homes in search of weapons. More than 30 people have died in the crackdown.
"I have never witnessed in my life anything like what is happening," Jane Wachira, a 37-year-old mother of three, told The Associated Press as she packed her bags Friday. "My children and I are traumatized."
Mungiki was inspired by the 1950s Mau Mau uprising against British rule, but has become a street gang linked to murder, political violence and extortion. Hundreds of paramilitary police have been tearing through Mathare since Monday, rounding up residents, clubbing them and knocking down homes constructed of wood and iron sheeting.
Police deny using excessive force, saying they are doing what is necessary to wipe out a fearsome sect accused in the deaths of at least 20 people in the past three months, including 12 found mutilated or beheaded since May.
The group also is accused of killing two police officers Monday — shootings that prompted this week's crackdown.
Gideon Muchoki Maina said his 23-year-old brother, John, was among those killed by police this week.
"He was a sugarcane vendor, he had no association with the Mungiki," Maina said.
Residents were loading their belongings onto pickup trucks and wheelbarrows or simply carrying them out of the slum. Many headed to the nearby Eastleigh neighborhood and found shelter in churches or a youth sports center.
Mungiki claims to have thousands of adherents, all drawn from the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe. Members of the group, whose name means "multitude" in the Kikuyu language, traditionally wear dreadlocks, inspired by the Mau Mau who wore them as a symbol of anti-colonialism and their determination not to conform to Western norms. In recent years, however, many Mungiki have shaved their heads, believing dreadlocks are too conspicuous.
Ken Ouko, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Nairobi, said raids targeting the Mungiki are doomed because the group is an underground gang.
"You cannot crack down someone you can't see. The sect members are slippery and they do their work with secrecy," Ouko said.
The recent bloodshed has raised fears that Mungiki members are out to disrupt elections in December, when President Mwai Kibaki will seek a second term.
Leaflets allegedly circulated by the group call on Kenyan youth to join and prepare for an uprising against the government. The leaflet includes a threat that "if one youth is killed we shall kill 10 police."