ISIOLO, Kenya (AlertNet) – Try as she might, Jamanose Achwa cannot forget the night raiders attacked her community in northern Kenya, a region plagued by inter-communal violence.
"The enemies killed small children and a woman who was pregnant. They split her stomach and the child came out," Achwa, a mother of 10 in her 40s, said.
"I dream about it and sometimes I can't sleep."
Since October, thousands of people have been forced off their land, local authorities say, by heavily-armed raiders who usually strike at night, burning houses in clashes analysts say are politically motivated.
Conflict is not new to these sparsely populated drylands, where nomadic herders from different ethnic groups often raid cattle from one another and fight over water and pasture during droughts - often aided by the proliferation of guns smuggled across Kenya's porous borders with Somalia and South Sudan.
But this latest displacement has taken on a new dimension, experts say.
"It has been fuelled by forthcoming elections," said Stephen Mbaabu, a member of the Isiolo Interfaith Network, a group of religious leaders promoting peace among the warring communities.
In Kenya, voting is predominantly along ethnic lines in the belief that someone from one's own ethnic group is more likely to safeguard one's interests than someone from a rival group.
With elections due either later this year or early 2013, Mbaabu said communities had already started a campaign to displace rivals. It is a tactic that has been used before in Kenya's often bloody elections - since voter registration is almost impossible for displaced people.
The Borana are the largest ethnic group in Isiolo, a dusty outpost, with the Samburu, Somali, Turkana and Meru following close behind.
"All the camps are doing their best, including incitements and supporting conflicts, to ensure that come 2012, they will have an upper hand in the elections," said the UN Development Programme in a 2010 report.
"We are seeing very worrisome signs. The level and incidence of reported violence, intercommunal violence, is increasing," said U.N. deputy aid chief Catherine Bragg on a recent visit to the area, urging all parties to work to restoring peace.
Another factor analysts have cited for the increase in violent displacement is Vision 2030, the government's development programme which aims to transform Kenya into a middle-income country by the year 2030.
As part of this plan, the government intends to build a "resort city" in Isiolo with a new airport and exclusive hotels to encourage tourists to visit the nearby game parks.
Some communities believe that by displacing other groups to settle in these prime development areas they may benefit from any future compensation.
"People think if they are found in a place, they will be compensated. So they want to displace others so that when the projects come, they are there for compensation. They think the land will be bought by investors or by government," Mbaabu said.
Around 2,000 displaced people have ended up on the outskirts of Isiolo town, living on a windswept, inhospitable plot owned by the local church.
There are no toilets in the makeshift settlement known as Chumvi camp. Residents say the water is dirty and food is in short supply. The shelters, built out of twigs and plastic sheeting, are cold at night.
More than 300 children study under the trees.
The human toll of this cycle of violence and displacement is evident at nearby Isiolo Hospital, where admission rates for conflict-related malnutrition have risen.
"Because of the security situation, things are becoming worse," said Isiolo District Hospital nutritionist Saida Abdirahman.
"These mothers don't have anywhere to reside, no food to eat. They can stay more than a week without food," she said, referring to the women cradling their sick children in the hospital beds.
Esther Akiru's story is typical.
"It started in the night. I heard shooting. I grabbed my children and ran," she said. "The thieves took our cows and shot people. My husband died in the fighting."
Akiru moved with her four children to Isiolo, where she stays with relatives. Her five-year-old son, David, has pneumonia and malnutrition.
Although the nutritionist has advised her to diversify his diet with fruits and milk, she does not have the money to do so.
"Even God does not know how he will help me," she said.