Sunday, January 13, 2008

Kenya: They had machetes and they threw stones. They were smashing our houses. They came every night

Susan Ouma sat on the wooden frame of her sofa, smiling down at her three-week-old daughter, Mary Akinyi, tightly wrapped in an orange blanket despite the blazing January sun.

Ouma was clearly relieved to have found sanctuary after a week of terrifying attacks which forced her to sleep out in the fields where she had been picking tea leaves for Unilever’s Mabrook farm.

Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) worker Zion Kibe Kangethe wrote down her details. The arrival of Ouma and her five children took the number of displaced people camping out behind Tigoni police station, 35km northwest of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to 400.

“Numbers have gone down from earlier this week. We had 800 people. But we are still having new arrivals,” Kangethe said.

Ouma explained why she had loaded all her possessions on to a donkey cart and travelled to this makeshift camp.

“For the last week, a mob of young men have been coming to our houses. There were so many you couldn’t count them. They had machetes and they threw stones. They were smashing our houses. They came every night,” she said.

“I didn’t have the strength to walk after having my baby and she’s so small. So we slept outside in the tea fields. In the day we would go back to our house.”

Ouma, like many of the workers at the tea factory, is not from Tigoni, having moved from Siaya in western Kenya to find work. Ouma is a Luo, as is opposition leader Raila Odinga, while most people in Tigoni’s Central Province are Kikuyus, like President Mwai Kibaki.

Seeking refuge

Conflict has broken out in many parts of Kenya since the announcement of disputed election results on 30 December, which saw the incumbent Kibaki return to power amid allegations of vote rigging.

Thousands of Kikuyus fled Rift Valley Province after attacks by the dominant Kalenjin community. Many came to Central Province. This seems to have triggered off revenge attacks there by young Kikuyu men on perceived outsiders from the Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin ethnic groups.

The field behind Tigoni police station is busy. Women and children cluster around; some eat plates of beans, cooked by local volunteers in giant saucepans. Others wash clothes in buckets or plait each other’s hair. Many just sit and stare numbly into the distance.

Beatrice Chepkoech, a 20-year-old mother of three, was waiting to see a nurse from nearby Tigoni hospital who had set up a clinic under a tree. She held her nine-month-old baby, Samuel, who had developed a swelling on his head.

Chepkoech is a Kalenjin from Eldoret in Rift Valley Province. She moved to the nearby town of Limuru last year where her husband found work in the Bata shoe factory.

Tension started brewing in the lead-up to the elections. Chepkoech heard rumours that Luyhas and Luos would be chased out of Limuru if the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) won. The ODM did not win but violence erupted nonetheless.

Mob violence

“On Sunday at about 6pm, a mob of young Kikuyu men came into people’s houses. There were about a hundred of them. They had machetes and clubs and were throwing stones and smashing the houses. They were chanting, ‘Those ones. Those ones. Chase them away’,” Chepkoech explained.

“We all ran to the railway station, except for the Kikuyus who stayed behind. There were hundreds of people there. We slept on the ground. It was icy cold. We didn’t sleep much. We were just praying. There was no food. The children were crying because they were hungry.”

Chepkoech spent two nights at the railway station before coming to the police station, where food, water, blankets and basic medical care were available. The KRCS erected three huge tents for the women and children, while the men slept outside.

After a few days, Chepkoech returned home to pick up her possessions but her house had been looted. Her bed, mattress and blankets had been stolen. Only the sofa base, one jerry can and a few clothes remained.

The family now want to move to Eldoret.

“I don’t want to stay in Limuru. I’m scared the same thing will happen again. The children should be going back to school next week. We want to go home and take them to school there but we don’t have money for transport,” said Chepkoech.

Chepkoech’s husband has found casual work in the Mabrook tea farm where he is paid about 50 shillings a day. With such a small income, it will be difficult to save the 2,500 shillings (US$37) they need to travel to Eldoret.

Paul Otieno, 35, has a similar problem. He wants to return to Kisumu in western Kenya, with his wife and two children, but the garage where he worked as a mechanic has closed down since the elections. His employer, also a Luo, has moved to Kisumu. Otieno says he’s scared to even look for work in Nairobi, which also has a large Kikuyu population, because the people there are “very fierce”.

Night commuters

About 100 people have become “night commuters”, continuing with their normal jobs during the day and then coming to sleep in the camp at night.

A spokeswoman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Sara Cameron, said this phenomenon was not unique to Tigoni.

“In a situation that is far more reminiscent of northern Uganda than Kenya, many people in different parts of the country are going to police stations to sleep for the night, because they are afraid of attack,” she said.

At Tigoni Police Station, everyone is waiting. A local Kikuyu businessman tours the field chatting to people. He has brought maize flour for the displaced.

A local councillor, who refused to give her name “because they’ll slaughter me”, has also come to check on the relief operation. She believes that even if the displaced people do go to their places of origin, the problems will not end there.

“What they are saying is they’ll go home and face any problems so long as they’re doing their own things without people from other communities going there for commercial reasons or whatever. This revenge is going in circles,” she said.

“You can’t have stability with injustice. It was daylight robbery,” she said, referring to the election result. “You must have true justice to have peace. It’s like you want to cover an injury before you clean it. It will definitely get contaminated and might result in cutting off one of your limbs.”

Published with the permission of IRIN
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or Mike Hitchen Consulting
Photo: Copyright