x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Kenya's refugees turn tents into homes

The camps in which thousands found refuge in 2008 are becoming permanent settlements.

Simon Karanje and Blasse Wambui play outside Simon Njoroge's tent in Mai Mahiu.
Simon Karanje and Blasse Wambui play outside Simon Njoroge's tent in Mai Mahiu.

MAI MAHIU, KENYA // Outside his neat, white tarpaulin tent, Simon Njoroge has planted purple bougainvillaea and rows of corn stalks. Tiny seedlings of cucumbers and watermelons are starting to sprout. Inside the tent, he has a sitting room with two armchairs, a kitchen with a gas stove and a bedroom with a wooden bed. While Mr Njoroge has outfitted this modest dwelling with homey features, the side of the tent is still emblazoned with the logo of the United Nations refugee agency, a stark reminder that he remains a displaced person in his own country.

In the two years since post-election violence shook the country, Mr Njoroge and other Kenyans have camped in tents like this. With little chance that the last remaining refugees will return home, they have begun to make their displacement camps into permanent villages. "We have now completed two good years in the camp," Mr Njoroge, 60, said. "There's nothing else to do except make it feel like home."

The worst of the violence kicked off just after New Year's Day 2008 after a disputed presidential election. Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent, narrowly beat his challenger, Raila Odinga, in a poll that most observers said was flawed. Supporters of Mr Odinga rioted and the violence quickly broke down along tribal lines. Members of Mr Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe clashed with the Luo and Kalenjin tribes. For two months, rivals hacked each other to death with machetes, slew them with arrows and spears and torched them while they slept in their beds.

A power-sharing deal ended the bloodshed but exposed deep-rooted tribal animosity. More than 1,300 people died in the riots and a further 350,000 were displaced. Most of the displacement camps were closed down after a year, but some, such as Mr Njoroge's camp of 1,300 people here in the Rift Valley, remain. For Mr Njoroge, a Kikuyu, the violence began about a week after the election. From the front porch of his house in Nandi Hills, a predominantly Kalenjin area in western Kenya, he could see mobs of angry youths with warpaint and bows and arrows.

"We were living happily, then all of a sudden these Kalenjin people were telling us that if Kibaki wins, we Kikuyu must leave that place," he said. "But the real cause of the problem was not the election; it was land. The Kalenjin did not like seeing others farming in the Rift Valley." Mr Njoroge, a farmer by trade, took his five children and wife and fled to the local police station as the mob descended on his house.

"They burnt our house," he said. "I left my house with nothing. They destroyed everything. Up to now, I have not gone back." His family first went to a camp in the town of Eldoret, where 10,000 people were packed together in squalor for one year. In October, when the government shut down the camp, about 200 displaced families pooled together the US$400 (Dh1,500) the government had given each of them as compensation and bought a parcel of land near the town of Mai Mahiu.

"The government has tried to help us," said Joyce Maina, the vice chairwoman of the relocated camp. "It's the government that provided the transport to move here. They gave us the money, so we gathered together and formed this group to buy this small shamba [farm]." Other groups of displaced people have also formed to purchase land to resettle, according to aid agencies. "A trend in return is the formation of self-help groups, who are identifying land on which to relocate to, rather than return to their homes," a UN humanitarian report said. "As the government continues to facilitate the closure of the IDP camps, relocation self-help groups are emerging as a collective answer towards a durable solution."

Around 25,000 people remain displaced in these transit camps and they are starting to become more permanent. At a site a few hundred metres from Mr Njoroge's camp, an aid organisation has built houses of breeze blocks for the squatters. Mr Njoroge said houses were promised to his camp as well. These last refugees of Kenya's most violent political crisis in modern history will probably resettle in their current locations rather than return to their original land, experts and displaced people say. The perpetrators of the violence have not been brought to justice and reports indicate that Kenyans are rearming for more clashes after the next election in 2012.

Mr Njoroge said he does not feel safe to return to his former village. Even if he did return, everything he once had there is gone. "I want to stay here," he said. "I won't go back. In the future, the same thing can happen again. I feel safe here because I am out of that place." mbrown@thenational.ae