Monday, February 11, 2008

Kenya: Where conflict has become a recurrent feature of life

One of the many improvised IDP camps in and around Molo

In Kenya’s Rift Valley town of Molo, about 200km from Nairobi, displacement by conflict has become a recurrent feature of life, and not only at election times.

Some of the destitute families sheltering in makeshift camps in church and government compounds in Molo told IRIN that this was the fifth time that they had been chased from their homes in the last two decades.

“In Molo, this has been a routine. Elections are only one of the trigger events. We have other things that trigger clashes, like a lady has been raped by a certain community or a certain community were drinking in a bar and one person decides to beat the other until they kill them, and it becomes a community thing.

“These things have been happening with small trigger events and then they flare up. It’s only this time round the problem is bigger because it was a national problem and not a Molo problem,” said the Molo coordinator for the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), Msallam Ahmed.

Hard-hit Rift Valley Province

In the latest cycle, violence began in the Rift Valley almost a month before Kenya’s December 27 elections as minority communities, mainly Kikuyus and Kisiis, started being hounded out of their houses by rival ethnic groups.

Rift Valley Province had been most affected by the post-election violence with more than 400 people killed, 250,000 displaced and 80,000 houses torched, according to Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Hassan Noor Hassan.

In Molo district alone, there were 60 sites hosting the displaced, 16 in Molo town itself.

One of the camps was in the grounds of a government office, the Pyrethrum Board. The first 20 displaced people arrived here on 20 December, a week before the elections. By early February, it was home to 415 people.

As sacks of maize were unloaded for distribution, a volunteer teacher wielding a stick tried to entertain a scruffy crowd of about 50 children sitting in the dirt. A fight broke out between two boys and the mob surged after one of them. Ahmed intervened and grabbed hold of the fleeing child.

“These children have seen mob justice. They get scared,” he said, hugging the tearful boy.

Parents “get angry fast”

He said the greatest need in the camps was to get displaced children back to school, particularly because they were traumatised by their experiences and the atmosphere was tense.

“Children are beaten by their own parents because of small mistakes they make, sometimes because of the trauma of their parents, the psychological state they are in. They get angry fast and beat their children terribly,” he said.

Humanitarian workers had set up a group to give psychosocial support to children. Ahmed also wanted to see paralegal services being provided in the camps to tackle cases of abuse.

Humanitarian role for local groups

Ahmed also wanted to see local organisations, such as youth and women’s groups, doing more to help with emergency relief efforts.

“We have small, local organisations that can do very well. The problem is they are shying away because they are seeing big organisations coming up and they feel their role might not be needed but their role is needed,” said Ahmed.

“We need a big number of these smaller groups to come up and help. . . They have the expertise of the local community. It makes the work easier. We’re using youth groups who are already experts in the theatre field to reach out with skits. That is a support. It doesn’t have to be in cash,” he explained.

Beth Wanjiku – living in Molo since 1963

The story of 72-year-old widow Beth Wanjiku was typical, showing how far back the roots of the ethnic conflict in Molo district go.

As a young married woman, Wanjiku moved to Kumbi, 10 km from Molo, with her husband soon after independence in 1963. She and her husband bought a two-acre plot in Kumbi, as part of the government settlement scheme which returned land sold by departing colonial settlers to landless Africans.

As Kikuyus, her family were periodically targeted as outsiders in the Rift Valley. Eight of her 12 children had been killed during the 1992 and 1997 clashes related to Kenya’s first two multiparty elections. Her husband, also badly injured during the 1997 ethnic clashes, had died two years ago. Since then, she had been living alone on her farm.

Speaking to IRIN in the Kikuyu language, she recalled how a gang of 200 young men, armed with bows and arrows, machetes and sticks, came to her house at around 8pm one night in early December. They pushed her down on the floor, kicking and beating her. They then chased her out of her house and stole her six cows and cash worth about $120.

It was a cold night. She covered her head with her jacket and tried to sleep in the fields, she said. The next morning, she slowly made her way to Molo with her walking stick.

Wanjiku said she was too scared to return home but had no idea where she would go when the camp closed. One of her children was still alive, a 35-year-old man, but he too had been displaced during the recent violence and was living in another internally displaced people’s (IDP) camp in Molo.

Root causes

Visiting Wanjiku’s camp, John Holmes, the United Nations’ most senior humanitarian official and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the historical roots of the conflict must be addressed.

“There are hatreds there, which have been there for some time. They’re not new. They’re related to land. They’re related to divisions of the past. I think it requires an enormous effort to bring the elders of these groups together to say everybody loses when this happens…It’s not easy. It’s a long-term process. But I don’t think we should regard it as impossible,” he said.

Political leaders remain in mediated talks to seek a political solution to the crisis in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Holmes said this in itself would not solve the problem.

“No one can guarantee that a political deal in Nairobi will solve all these problems. Clearly it won’t. There’s some very hard, deep work that needs to be done on reconciling communities with each other so that we don’t go back through this cycle again. That’s no easy task,” he said.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via
IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright