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Story Publication logo December 2, 2009

For IDPs in Kenya, lost homes, broken promises

Media file: camp.jpg

For about 18 months, more than a half of million people from the Ugandan area have been displaced...


Jordan Wilson, Pulitzer Student Fellow

ELDORET -- It's been a rather topsy-turvy two years for internally displaced persons in Kenya. After being violently removed from their homes in the waning days of 2007 due to post-election violence, hundreds of thousands have called patches of grass and makeshift tents home ever since. A recent, almost-too-late promise of compensation from the government didn't help repair the situation, as most IDPs never saw a shilling and hostility between the Kenyan people and their government is still brewing.

Former IDP Mary Njoki, right, talks to a friend while her neighbor's child plays in front of her house. Njoki ran a successful hotel in nearby Kimumu before she was forced out of her home in late 2007. She and her four children lived in the camps for 1 year and 10 months and just relocated to this small room four weeks ago. With all five people in the house, movement is limited. A raggedy couch and chair and rotting table are the only pieces of furniture in the room Njoki has tried to turn into a home. She struggles to meet her rent, which is just $9.40 a month and fears her children will soon be kicked out of school because she can't afford to pay school dues.

With the same force they were removed from their homes, IDPs last month were also pushed out of the camps that so quickly became their crutch. Most of the 50-plus camps – which were home to between 500,000 and 750,000 people, were shut down before Luis Moreno-Ocampo came to Kenya in an attempt to mask any perceived travesty.

Ocampo is the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court and launched an investigation this week into the post-election violence, specifically a January 2008 attack in Eldoret. He stepped in as many high-ranking Kenyan officials failed to investigate the rampage that left more than 1,200 dead and 3,500 badly injured.

On the exterior, the IDP situation appears cut-and-dry. Election results were disputed and riots ensued. People lost their homes, so they relocated to coarse camps.

Members of the IDP camp Kamwenge Innya Mumbi wait for clothes to dry Monday afternoon. About 300 displaced person located to this camp after being forced out of their previous camp. Their previous location was called Camp Showground, the largest of its kind in Kenya. Many IDPs and NGOs say that the displacement problem didn't end after the government shut down the camps in October. Instead, there are more camps, they argue. The only difference is there are more camps with fewer people in each camp, and they have moved to less noticeable locations.

But that's not the story everyone believes. Almost any person who faced violence says the attacks were calculated.

Ocampo agreed, and offered evidence to the ICC that the attacks were methodically planned from one clan targeting a rival clan. A three-judge panel is expected to make a ruling on the case in the next week or so.

Though any forthcoming punishment toward the government may be a small victory for IDPs, the damaging reality will likely not fade.

Ndung'u Wanjohi was the camp chairman of the largest IDP camp in Kenya, named the Showground. Government estimates said 23,000 people called it home. In reality, leaders say, about 40,000 people lived there. Wanjohi said the ill feelings toward the government won't soon go away. IDPs were promised compensate through 35,000 shillings or a plot of land.

But the lofty promises never happened, Wanjohi said. He said most of the money trickled into politician's pockets instead of to the people. So, many of the displaced simply found a more discrete camp farther away from the access road so they could still receive help from non-profits and draw on the safety in numbers. Others, like Wanjohi himself, are staying with friends and relatives elsewhere.

But returning home, like the government told them to do, is an option rarely taken. Some former dwellings are more burnt wood and ashes than a place to call home. Also, many IDPs fear their old homes because a walk around the neighborhood will likely result in running into someone who tried to kill your or a loved one.

Mary Njoki, a former IDP, cooks in the house while her 4-year-old son waits outside for the food to be ready. Njoki said life is harder now than it was in the IDP camps. In the camps, non-profits were a staple, providing food, shelter, medical attention and even schooling. The camp lifestyle was a godsend for Njoki after her house was burned down during post-election violence. Now, she fears that she won't be able to provide basic items for herself and her family.

"We are getting nothing from the government. There was the promise of the land, but no land we have been given," Wanjohi said. "It is difficult for us to go back for our parents were killed. Some, our children were killed. So it's difficult to go back."

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