It's the same story every time. Women, children and people living in poverty are the most affected by violence and unrest.
But each woman and every child has their own story to tell about the confict in Kenya.
There are stories of fleeing hometowns because people with their last names are suddenly not welcome. There are stories of struggling to find food, clean water and medicine. There are stories of lost husbands, fathers, children. There are stories of rape, riot and murder. And there are stories of hope, of brotherhood in the face of ethnic violence.
The African Woman and Child Feature Service is launching a project to help women and children tell the stories of how they are affected by the post-election violence. The Urgent Action Fund is supporting the project. Over the next couple of months, the reporting and editorial staff will be gathering these stories. We will be distributing them to media around the region and I will be posting them here.
Here is the first Voices posting. It was written by Joyce Chimbi, a program officer and junior reporter at AWCFS.
Double jeoprdy for refugees in Kenya
When Hamida Sheikh fled Ethiopia in 2002 and took refuge in Kenya, she hoped that her life would take a turn for the better.
In her home country, Sheikh was associated with an anti-government rebel group. She says that endangered her life, and the life of her five children. She had to take some drastic measures.
“My husband was arrested for allegedly supporting a rebel group. life became very hard. Without him for protection, I knew it was only a matter of time before I was killed,’’ she says.
Her husband is still in detention back in Ethiopia, and it has been a long time since they saw one another. Her youngest child is a constant reminder of the humiliation and assault she endured at the end of her time in Ethiopia. It’s a child born out of rape.
Hamida is one of the estimated 310 refugees who have been camping at Nairobi’s Jamhuri Park. She is caught up in a struggle that she does not even comprehend.
The hardship these refugees are now facing, in a foreign country torn by conflict is however not unique. In search of a better safety, many refugees have sought asylum in countries that are themselves ablaze with conflict.
When violence erupted in Kenya following the December elections, people seeking asylum in Kenya were not spared the disruption in many parts of the country.
“Although we have no political affiliations, when the supporters of the two main political protagonists crashed, we were caught in the middle,’’ Sheikh says.
She says people in her community did not initially feel threatened because, as foreigners, they were neutral, as far as tribal identities were concerned. In the end, she says, that way not enough for them to escape the chaos that has pervaded the country.
Hamida says that she knew it was time to seek protection at the displaced persons’ camp when leaflets were dropped at night, ordering the refugees to vacate their houses or face dire consequences.
Having been at the camp for about three weeks, most of the Ethiopians sit in groups smoking tobacco and chewing miraa, as they contemplate a way out of their predicament.
“This is called shisha,” says 25-year-old Kadio Wako, gesturing to tall, colorful pipe. “It’s a form of tobacco from Egypt .It has helped us to remain sane because it stimulates our nerves, keeping away stress.”
He says they have had tobacco throughout conflict, because they bought plenty of it in Garissa, before the violence erupted.
Wako was studying law in Ethiopia, when the political situation became too volatile in 2003 and he decided to flee the country. The fact that his father was actively involved in politics and had been a Minister of Finance, put him in a very dangerous position.
“I’m Oromo; the majority ethnic group which in Ethiopia, automatically qualifies you as a rebel against TPLF [Tigray People's Liberation Front] government,” Wako says.
Wako’s experience of strife and flight in Ethiopia is unfortunately being repeated in Kenya. He says that having to live through it again is tragic. Wako emphasizes that most of the refugees cannot go back to their countries, because the situations that instigated their exile have not improved.
“The TPLF government is still in power, and I’m still an Oromo, it would simply mean going back to where all this begun,” Wako says.
His sentiments are echoed by Radia Hassan, who has been living in Kenya since 1999.
“The thought of returning to my country paralyses me with fear,” she says, as she pauses to blow smoke between her teeth.
“In Ethiopia, I was threatened, humiliated and abused,” she says. “Under [the United Nations High Commission for Refugees], I was recognized as a refugee and registered right here in Kenya.’’
Hassan left her five children in Ethiopia. She settled in Kenya in the hope that she could rebuild her life and have her children join her.
Even though life in Kenya has been difficult owing to what she terms “hard economic times,” Hassan has been grateful to be free to live her life.
“It’s hell always watching your back, for fear that your enemies might make good their threat on your life.”
Radia also says that it has been quite nerve wrecking living at Jamhuri Park. The constant sounds of gun shots in the near by Kibera slum has been a nightmare.
Although those staying at the camp have been assured of security, most of the nights they can hardly sleep for fear of being ambushed. The women seem to be the most affected by the conflict. Even at the camp, reported cases of rape are a constant reminder of their vulnerability.
“It is unfortunate that even with the situation as it is, sexual assault within the camp has persisted,” says Doreen Bwisa, who is an administrator at the camp’s medical clinic.
Most of these refugees have been in the country for many years. Some of the children running around were born in Kenya and have no memories of their parents’ troubled past.
“I fled Sudan eight years ago,” says Yong’ Sumi. “In Kenya, I have managed to rebuild my life but as things stand now, I feel like my future is hanging in the balance.”
For these people now displaced in a country where they once found solace, their future is becoming more and more cloudy.
They say that they feel as if history is repeating itself. Their desperation is apparent and most of them feel neglected because, amidst the chaos, the particular needs of people in the refugee community seem not to be addressed.
Sumi says that since the government announced its plan to close the camp, he has worried every day about where he will go next.
“On Sunday the 27th , when most of the displaced Kenyans began leaving the camp in droves, we the foreigners huddled together in utter hopelessness,” Sumi says
Standing next to him, Wako interjects “Some of the displaced Kenyans have gone back to their houses, others are going to their rural homes, but where can we go?”
They feel that being a small group among the estimated 300,000 internally displaced people in Kenya, has made it difficult for their plight to be addressed.
According to Margaret Wanyiri, the camp coordinator under the National Alliance of Churches, among there are Sudanese, Rwandese and Ethiopian people currently staying at Jamhuri Park.
Wanyiri says the plight of the refugees is being addressed, and practical measures are being undertaken to relocate them to Kakuma refugee camp.
“We are actually hoping to have the exercise of relocating the refugees by Wednesday, 30th of January,” Wanyiri says.
Kakuma camp, established about 12 years ago, is one of the world’s largest and oldest refugee camps. Situated in the northern part of Kenya, the camp is home to an estimated 86,000 refugees from nine different countries.
Kakuma has seen frequent food shortages and incidences of sexual assault. That reputation does little to reassure the refugees at Jamhuri Park as they look at an uncertain future.
According to statistics by Church World Service, at the end of 2006 there were 2,932,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Africa.
Most refugees in Africa flee to neighboring countries. In the 2006 Church World Service statistics, Sudan produced the highest number of asylum seekers. Kenya hosted the second-highest number of refugees, Tanzania hosted the highest number.
In their report, the Church World Service said the statistics reaffirms the presence of conflict in many African societies, mostly due to ethnic intolerance.
“[The statistics] are symptomatic of the tragedy of the ethnic conflicts, social disintegration and political anarchy prevailing in some countries in Africa,” the report says.
According to United Nations High Commission for Refugee, people will only stop needing to flee their home countries when African political leaders embracing politics of inclusion. This would consequently create a solid base for responsible and accountable governance, which would in turn create room for a just and fair society.