Dec 29, 2008

World - Kenya;One year after massacre people still traumatised

Xan Rice

Kenya’s worst ever ethnic violence was sparked by a presidential election held a year ago. At least 1,300 people died and more than 300,000 fled their homes. The picture shows a man fleeing violence in Nairobi with his children in January 2008.

In a village without roofs, the grass grows on bedroom floors. In the fields, there are weeds where maize used to grow. On a blackened wall, a message is written in charcoal: “One day, one time, all these will be a thing of the past.”

A yellow-billed kite soars high above the patch of ground where the Kenya Assemblies of God church stood. Small scraps of burnt clothing litter the earth — memories of the dead not yet buried. Many of the living have moved far from the ghosts of Kiambaa. Hundreds more, including 40-year-old Grace Githuthwa, can be found crammed inside tiny white tents behind a police post that was built too late to matter.

Kenya’s worst ever ethnic violence was sparked by a presidential election held a year ago on December 27. At least 1,300 people died and more than 300,000 fled their homes. Since then, an internationally brokered peace deal to end the strife has held, and the coalition government is intact. Tourists have returned to the game parks and beaches.

But for many victims, the struggle to rebuild lives has barely begun. About 80,000 people displaced in January have yet to be resettled, according to a recent report by the Kenya Human Rights Commission. One issue is money. The other reason, especially in Kiambaa, is fear. “How can we live here after what happened”’ asked Ms Githuthwa.

The fires began on New Year’s Eve. Ms Githuthwa received a panicked call from her parents. Mobs of young Kalenjin men were burning houses of Kikuyu families, the ethnic group of President Mwai Kibaki, who had been declared the winner of the dubious poll. The attackers’ fury was only partly political: in the Rift Valley the Kikuyu had long been perceived as interlopers.

Ms Githuthwa, a passion-fruit farmer, decided it was too dangerous to stay at home. With her husband, Simon, their two sons, two daughters and three-year-old niece, Miriam, visiting from Nairobi for Christmas, they spent the night outside the nearby Kenya Assemblies of God church. By mid-morning on New Year’s Day, when the smoke was rising from nearby homes and the war songs were getting louder, hundreds of Kikuyu had crammed into the church.

The attackers, their faces painted white, locked the church door. Paraffin-soaked mattresses were pushed against the windows. A match was struck. Ms Githuthwa’s children managed to force their way out through the window. She followed, with Miriam in her arms. A young Kalenjin man ripped Miriam away, and threw her back into the inferno.

As Ms Githuthwa fled, she found Simon lying by the road. His head was bleeding. A good Samaritan — a Kalenjin man — took Simon to hospital in his car.

The next morning, as Red Cross workers pulled tiny charred bodies from the embers, Ms Githuthwa hoped that somehow Miriam had survived. The local mortuary received 35 corpses. The bodies, many of them burned beyond recognition, remain today in nearby Eldoret. Most are still unidentified; DNA results have not yet been released.

In the two weeks after the attack, the Githuthwa family endured the cold nights outside the main Catholic church in Eldoret. Conditions were scarcely better after they were moved to makeshift tents in the town’s agricultural showground, along with 20,000 others.

Many other Kiambaan residents had left, going hundreds of miles away to relatives in Nairobi or Central province, the traditional Kikuyu heartland. But the families of Ms Githuthwa and her husband had lived around Eldoret since independence; they had nowhere “safe” to go.

In May, they were shifted again. Under Operation Return Home, designed to empty the camps, they were promised about £85 to cover basic needs, and a further £210 for shelter. But human rights organisations say that the payouts were poorly handled. Many victims say they never received any money. Tens of thousands of people were merely shifted to smaller camps.

In June, Ms Githuthwa returned to the church with a man who had lost his wife to the fire. Among the dirt and ashes he located a strip of her dress. Ms Githuthwa found a piece of Miriam’s blue jacket. “My brother [Miriam’s father] came here and told me there was nothing more I could have done,” she said. Tears formed in her eyes. Members of the government talk of burying the victims’ remains on January 1, but few are willing to believe them.

Neither Mr. Kibaki nor the opposition leader and Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, have visited the site. When a group of women representing more than 3,000 displaced people still living in tents recently travelled to Nairobi to protest at their treatment, the police fired teargas at them.

Reconciliation meetings between Kalenjin and Kikuyu are under way in parts of the Rift Valley. But James Kimisoi, programme coordinator in the Catholic diocese of Eldoret, which is leading the peace effort, said that the underlying issue of land ownership had not even begun to be discussed.

Kiambaa remained “too volatile” for peace talks to begin. Part of the reason is the ongoing trial of four Kalenjin men accused of involvement in the church attack. Despite threats from local men, Ms Githuthwa is one of the 56 witnesses to have testified.

One of those charged with murder is Julius Rono. “The Kikuyu have testified against my husband even though he was not involved,” said his wife Helen Rono. “I feel bitter; they get food from the Red Cross but who can provide for me?”

A short walk away, Ms Githuthwa was looking at the ruins of her house. She shook her head. “Sometimes it’s better to be killed than to be hurt,” she said. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

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