Story Publication logo January 28, 2010

Personally Displaced


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

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I tried to ignore the gauze wrapped around her battered finger. The normally white cloth had faded pink, indicative of days of dried blood coated in dirt.

Looking past her oversized and over-worn sandals, the Kenyan girl's leg told another story.

A white bone protruded through a mass of bloodied and infected skin.

There was a shortage of food and water, but a surplus of sickness and sorrow.

I was out of my comfort zone.

This figured to be just another assignment. Sure, reporting on Kenyans displaced because of post-election violence two years ago would evoke more emotion than anything I did in my years as a reporter and editor at the Daily Egyptian. But I assumed the sights, smells and imagery would dissipate from memory.

They haven't.

Because of what I learned at SIUC and a fellowship from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I traveled to Africa to find the reasons behind the tragedies that left some 750,000 Kenyans stranded and living in tents. These clusterings of makeshift tent communities scattered throughout central Kenya were called IDP camps, jargon for camps of internally displaced persons.

What I found was disturbing – a politically charged power struggle that permanently changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, including mine.

Suffering defined

She wasn't speaking English, but I perfectly understood Jane Wambuin Njoroge. Her crackling voice resembled her struggle – it was a fight just to talk about what happened. It was almost as if she'd run out of tears.

She wasn't speaking English, but I perfectly understood Jane Wambuin Njoroge. Her crackling voice resembled her struggle – it was a fight just to talk about what happened. It was almost as if she'd run out of tears.

Her sadness needed no translation.

Njoroge's tale was like those of tens of thousands of other Kenyans who were still displaced as a result of the 2008 presidential election. Post-election violence forced some 500,000 to 750,000 people from their homes. These were successful people who had everything taken away in a few vicious hours. Thousands were killed and injured. People were shot, burned and hacked to death with machetes in broad daylight as long-simmering tribal tensions boiled over into a bloodbath that stunned the world.

While some have resettled in their hometowns or other places throughout the war-torn nation since late 2007, thousands remain displaced.

Most displaced people lived in tents, the same ones they used when massive groups of Kenyans swarmed together in camps for Internally Displaced Persons. The IDP camps for two years served as a safe haven for hundreds of thousands. In September, though, the government shut down the camps in order to clean its image. The camps were a reminder that the government lacked the security to protect people from the attacks and they also showed the government's inability to resolve conflict.

When closing the camps, the government promised IDPs money and land – a deal that has yet to reach fruition.

So now, IDPS wait. The camps aren't actually closed; it's just that the government quit recognizing them in an effort to wash its hands clean of any involvement. Because of the "closures," international non-profits that kept camps running are handcuffed. They can't help anymore because the government doesn't recognize the camps as being IDPs, which means the non-profits don't have access to international aid.

People in the camps, such as Njoroge, are fuming because of the situation. They don't want to go back to their charred neighborhoods, as it was their neighbors who burned their houses and killed their families. Yet, it's hard to live their life in a secluded camp without much help from the government or other outside agencies.

Even though the situation is officially tabbed as post-election violence, most Kenyans will tell you the bloody clash was a premeditated attack between two rival tribes, the Kalenjins and the Kikuyus. The results of the 2008 election – which wasn't officially decided until the two parties signed a deal two months later – probably didn't matter much. The violence was going to happen either way, just like it had in two other of Kenya's three presidential elections.

So now, it's a waiting game. IDPs don't want to return home as their families, businesses and lives were mercilessly destroyed before their eyes.

"We are still suffering with our children here," Njoroge said slowly in English. "Even the husbands have run away. (The government) has left us alone here to suffer."

Answers aren't always enough

Answers are hard to come by in Kenya, especially when it has to do with IDPs. My timing wasn't exactly the best, either.

My visit fell the same week government officials were being investigated by the International Criminal Court for their alleged involvement in the violence. Tribes are politically aligned, which means an entire tribe being displaced can be a huge advantage for some politicians.

This investigation made for some tense times, as big-shot politicians did everything they could to conceal any alleged involvement in the attacks.

During my two weeks in Kenya, I saw three stories in the local paper about people going "missing" because they were giving out damaging information about the government's involvement in violence. One of my sources even had to move his family after being threatened by one political big-shot's henchmen because he gave me too much information.

It was serious business.

Regardless, answers slowly trickled in.

Some people have received the money promised by the government. A few hundred dollars, though, means squat for people who lost businesses, homes and family members.

The promise of land is another issue.

Aside from the cost, there may not even be enough land, government officials admitted.

"The government is still in the process of (helping)," said Lucy Ndemo, a government district officer from Nakuru.

"There are constraints. People have to understand this is not a fast-moving process.

"Who is going to give this government money to buy land from its own citizens to give to its own citizens?"

It's too bad that political egos and ancestral bitterness will keep this problem from being solved. The dozens of IDPs I talked to will likely continue to suffer and struggle to eat ample food and drink clean water.

The IDP situation in Kenya isn't a unique fight – similar scenarios play on repeat all around the globe with different characters and settings. That's the answer I ultimately found – that the U.S. is a very small box and there's a lot of troubling times in all corners of the world that most Americans tend not to pay attention to.

This journey to Kenya grabbed my attention. And I'm glad it did. It was an education you cannot get in a Carbondale classroom.

Extended Story - Online version

My mission, redefined

Suffering and weakness must exist to fuel the able-bodied and courageous.

That's the only rationale I can muster after my trip to Kenya. I don't see any other reason why such things would happen to such undeserving people. These atrocities must exist to afflict the comfortable – exposure to a crisis such as IDP camps in Kenya should force you from your comfort zone, even if just for a moment. I hope my story disturbs you just a bit.

I hope my multimedia work on the DE's Web site forces you to turn away at some point. Because without that uncomfortable feeling in your stomach, people like Jane Wambuin Njoroge will still be thirsty at the end of the day.

After this trip, I'm conflicted, torn and saddened. You probably see stories dealing with refugees or IDPs briefly on the news, or catch a paragraph or two in the paper. But when you read about it or see it, there are things you aren't exposed to.

You don't see the nine family members sharing a meal fit for one. You don't see those same nine people crammed in a raggedy tent the size of a half-bathroom. You don't see the death. The destruction. The devastation.

This trip took my definition of suffering, chewed it and spat it back out in a foreign form. When I left Chicago, I considered myself a poor college student. Sure, I'm still tens of thousands of dollars in debt thanks to my journalism degrees. But none of my bones penetrate the skin. My drinking water isn't boiled to rid it of disease. I've never had to jump over dead bodies and dodge bullets as towering flames engulfed my house and life as I knew it.

Repeatedly hearing these same stories is gutwrenching. These people weren't born into poverty. They haven't been living in the slums since birth. These people were successful. They had businesses. They had homes. They had families.

Dec. 27, 2007, changed that. That's when post-election violence thrashed their simple lives. They went from having a place to being displaced. From happy to hurting. From living to dying.

My initial mission was to find the truth and report it. For the first time in my reporting career, doing that alone won't suffice. I hope the images, words and sounds here move you to rattle a cage. Rile some feathers … at least do something.

Maybe you aren't going to head to rural Kenya and help people in tents. That's fine. But there's likely someone just like Jane Wambuin Njoroge in your backyard. Someone who is sick. Someone who is hungry. Someone literally crying for help.

I hope that my work here might persuade you to answer that call, even if for a brief moment.

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