Displaced and Forgotten: Ethnic Violence Overshadows Kenyan Campaign

By in Kenya

Kenya's last election ended in chaos and violence. Thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. They were people like Grace Wambui, who now lives in a wasteland settlement without hope for a better future. Many fear the upcoming election could bring more violence.

Photo Gallery: Internally Displaced in the Kenyan Badlands Photos
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The shabby tent far from home is all that Grace Wambui, 52, has left. It stands among two dozen other such shelters in the badlands near Lake Elementaita in Kenya. Locals use the term badlands to refer to the low-lying land on the shores of the lake that nobody wants. It is hard and dry and if rainfall is sparse, the dirt quickly sucks it up.

At the moment, however, it is the rainy season, and more water is pouring out of the clouds than the thin soil can handle. In the evenings, the water level in the camp begins to climb, forcing Wambui and her neighbors to flee, as they have so many times before. They go to the nearby village of Kikopey and ask the pastor there if they can spend the night in the church.

The tent community has chosen Wambui as its spokesperson, a kind of mayor for a settlement with no school, no police and no doctor. Those who are too sick to walk, she says, are carried to the nearby road on sacks where they are picked up for a trip to the next sizeable town, Gigil.

Wambui's small tent settlement provides shelter to some 50 people, a small share of the 250,000 Kenyans who are currently displaced in their own country. Some of them have fled from drought and hunger, but Wambui and thousands like her are political refugees. They are victims of the Kenyan tragedy that took place just under five years ago, a calamity that could repeat itself during elections next spring.

At the end of 2007, Wambui lived in a slum in the city of Eldoret in northwestern Kenya. It was presidential election season and Wambui, the mother of four children, was an active supporter of incumbent Mwai Kibaki. Once the votes had been counted, however, rumors quickly began to spread that Kibaki had won on the strength of widespread voting fraud and Wambui's neighbors accused her of wrongdoing. That isn't all they did, though.

Kenyans Killing Kenyans

Wambui is a member of the Kikuyu tribe, a minority in the multi-ethnic city of Eldoret. During the campaign, the political leaders of the Luo and Kalenjin tribes had assembled an alliance in opposition to President Kibaki and ensured their followers that their future would be bright if their candidate, Raila Odinga, were to win. Kibaki's followers did the same -- to the point that many began to view the election as crucial for the future of their tribe.

The deep ideological trenches that resulted provided the impetus for the post-election massacre that shocked the world in early 2008. Kenyans killed Kenyans with machetes and with bows and arrows, bands of youth swept through the slums lighting shacks on fire and murdering anyone they came across. The country suddenly found itself on the brink of civil war.

Only after former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stepped in after a month of violence did opposition leader Odinga agree to become prime minister under President Kibaki. Some 1,200 had lost their lives by then and some 600,000 were homeless.

Wambui and her family knew they had to flee their home when they saw the first hacked up corpses on the side of the street. Young men were the primary victims of the orgy of violence, but women and children were far from immune. Some were attacked with rocks in the streets or had limbs chopped off with machetes. Others were beaten to death.

Still Displaced Years Later

Although the Kikuyus were a minority in Eldoret, they were numerically superior in Wambui's immediate neighborhood -- and they took advantage. "My people killed many Kalenjins there," she says bluntly. There were victims on all sides.

Yet the fact that refugees like Grace Wambui, more than four years later, still haven't found a new home, is one of the silent scandals in Kenya. Just as bad is the fact that many of the murderers in the massacre were never brought to justice.

Some of the tents in Wambui's small community in the badlands on Lake Elementaita were badly damaged by a mid-October hail storm. Chickens now cluck about under the torn open roofs, their former occupants have moved in with their neighbors.

As the rain pelts the tarp over her head, Wambui explains how her small community was established. She and others collected what little money they had and bought the small, hard piece of land they now live on, just as other groups of internally displaced have done across the country. But they face a significant hurdle: Officially, they don't exist. The government insists that all victims of the violence in 2007 and 2008 have been successfully resettled or have returned to their homes.

An Unholy Alliance

To this day, it remains unclear just who exactly was responsible for the expulsions and ethnic violence. However, both the Kenyans and Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, agree that some of the violence was well-organized.

The ICC has thus admitted a case against four Kenyan individuals for acting as indirect accomplices to murder, displacement and persecution. Complicating matters, however, is the fact that two of the defendants are candidates in upcoming presidential elections -- and are leading most opinion polls. They are Uhuru Kenyatta, one of the country's richest men and the finance minister until January, and William Ruto, who was likewise a member of the cabinet until he was thrown out on suspicion of corruption.

In early December, the two men announced that they would run as a team, so that Kenyatta could become president and Ruto his vice president. The charges at The Hague allege that both candidates hired criminal bands who went on murderous rampages through the streets. By the time the ICC opens proceedings against the duo in April, it is likely that they will be charging the Kenyan president and vice president.

The situation has many Kenyans worried that their country could be thrust into chaos once again when people go to the polls in 90 days. In addition, there have been reports of violent outbreaks across the country. In August, more than 100 people died during unrest in the Tana River District. Three bomb attacks in the capital of Nairobi killed at least 10 people within four weeks, and another attack on police by heavily armed cattle thieves in November left dozens of dead officers behind.

Low Voter Registration

All of these conflicts have at least one ethnic component to them. When nine people were recently killed in a bus attack attributed to the Somalian terrorist organization al-Shabab, bands of youths chased Somalians through the streets of Nairobi and plundered their businesses in revenge.

The country does have a number of anti-violence projects underway in poor areas, plus a new constitution and strict laws against ethnic incitement. But between the alliance of Kenyatta and Ruto and their biggest opponent, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, there seems to be a return to politics driven by ethnic concerns.

The ICC Chief Prosecutor Bensouda is aware that it could influence the upcoming elections, but she has not let that affect her work. Her job is to achieve justice for the victims of the expulsions and murders, she said in October in Nairobi. According to her special request on her first visit to Kenya, Bensouda went to a refugee camp, a tidy settlement with approved refugees. Her visit to the Gilgil settlement, however, was cancelled at the last minute due to what officials said were security concerns.

Kenyans can register for the March elections until mid-December. But out of some 22 million voters, so far just 6 million have done so. Will Grace Wambui take part? "No, I won't vote," the camp leader says. The woman who campaigned in 2007 is resigned.

She extends her arm in a gesture toward the scenic landscape of the Rift Valley. The sun blazes as wind rips through the plastic tarps in the ragged settlement. "I voted once," she says. "And one can see what that brought me."

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