The signal crime of Kenya’s post-election tumult took place near Eldoret when a gang burned down a church killing about 50 people who were locked inside. It also saw more than its share of the rioting and probably will as they’re expected to heat up again in the next few days. Even so, when I visited last week it looked like a relatively orderly and prosperous place, albeit after many of its population had fled. Its massive hospital serves the region and the airport is more imposing than it needs to be. In the city center stores have reopened after last week’s looting. Buildings burned along the airport road, were destroyed too thoroughly to be eerie. All that remains of them are unevocative piles of ash.
In Nairobi, diplomats and power brokers are still trying to reach some sort of settlement that would satisfy both President Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity and Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic movement after the disputed election. As the various factions flirt, a growing refugee camp outside Eldoret, one of many in the area, shows how difficult it will be to resolve Kenya’s unsteady situation.
When I visited last Wednesday the camp had grown from about 200 people into a town of 4,083 registered inhabitants, 33 of whom were orphans. Many of them have seen their homes burned and are frightened to return to places where the only remnants of their past lives are the people who ruined them. They are now confined to the Show Ground, a large field more frequently used to host farmers’ markets.
Immediately after Kibaki claimed victory, members of Odinga’s Luo tribe began protesting in riots that caused widespread looting and arson across Kenya. In their sights were members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, the largest and wealthiest in the country. Apparently the refugee camp holds people from several tribes but everyone I interviewed there described themselves as a Kikuyu fleeing violence.
David Karioki, a gaunt man of 47 with rotting teeth and a Manchester United cap was sitting beside one of the paths through the camp. “They burned my house,” he said. “They stole everything in my house.” A younger man who crowded around added that the looters and arsonists were their friends and neighbors. He thought they had received payments from “politicians” or believed they would be rewarded for punishing Kikuyus.
Across the field, people were trying to make themselves at home. Many had constructed shelters of arched branches covered by tarps or sticks and grass. Some had been able to salvage mattresses from their houses and generally surrounded themselves with everything they owned, including their food. (At a smaller camp on the grounds of Eldoret’s modern cathedral I saw the timbers of a dismantled house and a wall unit that might hold a home entertainment center.) The field was large enough that people could spread out. From a distance an observer might think it was a popular picnic spot.
Laundry dried on barbed wire fences. In a position that looks both painful and permanent, Women bent with their torsos parallel to the ground, as they stirred pots of beans and corn kernels over harsh charcoal fires. Everywhere kids called “How are you? How are you?” at the white folks, aid workers mostly, who were milling around. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms patrolled with rifles, perhaps responsible for the prevailing, and surprising calm. Many of the refugees had already been homeless for more than a week, initially fleeing to police stations for protection. After several days they were trucked to the facility.
Towards the back of the field the aid groups parked their SUVs and kids played soccer. There I met a Kenyan who had arrived from Nairobi to be the manager of what he called the “transition center.” Wearing a Red Cross coverall he said the group expects to distribute at least two weeks worth of food as well as water, blankets and mosquito nets to prevent malaria. Several refugees said they had not yet seen any Red Cross supplies but a large truck with the group’s emblem drove through, suggesting it was on the way.
The goal is for people to leave relatively soon, the Red Cross guy said, though he expects many would not be able to go back to their home towns. He was trying to supervise latrine digging which would add 20 toilets to the fifteen already in use.
Other aid workers from groups like Unicef and Medecins Sans Frontieres were represented to contribute to the relief effort. A white Mormon woman who looked to be in late middle age said she had been in Eldoret for 19 months. She and her husband were supposed to leave in December but decided to stay on “We didn’t know why, but we know now.” Welcoming some relative newcomers to Kenya she said “We think it’s the Garden of Eden.”
The transition center has become a haven for refugees in their own country. For the most part nothing, not even their houses or a bank account, awaits them where they came from. The solution they describe, are begging for really, is aid from the government to help them restart their lives, preferably someplace new. With no clear shape as to how the new government will look, let alone how or if it will be able to help them, the people now living at the Show Ground are in for a long two weeks.