Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

RIGHTS-KENYA: Home Is Where the Fear Is

Kwamboka Oyaro

NAIROBI, May 13 2008 (IPS) - The Kenyan government has begun transporting certain internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the camps they have occupied for the last four months back to their homes. The IDPs have been assured of support by government once back on their farms.

The resettlement exercise, named Operation Rudi Nyumbani (“return home”, in Kiswahili), began on May 5. Under the supervision of armed officers, IDPs loaded farm implements, fertiliser, seeds and household possessions onto military trucks and buses that were transporting them to their farms. They also carried their tents, which they will live in until they rebuild their homes.

Those being resettled now are all returning to rural areas. It’s not clear when people displaced from urban centres will return.

The government insists that the operation is voluntary, but the armed and uniformed officers initially supervising the process gave a different impression. By the end of last week, the military personnel were replaced by Kenya Red Cross Society officials and vehicles.

The resettlement exercise is in line with the National Accord and Reconciliation Act brokered by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan at the end of February which ended months of post-election clashes that swept the country soon after the December 2007 elections. A great deal of the violence was directed against the Kikuyus – the largest ethnic group in Kenya, long dominant in the economic and political affairs of the East African nation.

Official government records show that upwards of 350,000 people were displaced by violent protests after presidential challenger Raila Odinga accused President Mwai Kibaki of rigging the elections to win a second and final term in office. The two leaders agreed to work together only after mediation efforts led by Annan came up with a power-sharing deal that allowed Kibaki to remain as president, and named Odinga as prime minister.

Countrywide, the Kenyan Red Cross reports 150,000 IDPs are still sheltering in 166 makeshift camps at show grounds, police stations and schools.

Their resettlement is moving ahead despite disagreement among leaders on exactly how and when to do it. Some members of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement want the resettlement to be effected only after communities have reconciled, while those associated with Kibaki’s Party of National Unity seek immediate resettlement.

Conflict over land ownership is an important underlying reason for the widespread violence that claimed over a thousand lives following the disputed Dec. 27 elections. A number of Kenya’s internal refugees will be returning to disputed land. Some Kenyans claim that since independence in 1963, land has been parceled out to people from the Kikuyu community with no regard for the locals’ views.

Shifts in land ownership have been reflected in the Kikuyu names given to certain villages, schools and farms. Local communities renamed some of these areas when their occupants fled during the violence. “Renaming is symbolic…it is like we are taking back what had been taken away from us illegally,” a resident of one of the affected areas told IPS.

In the midst of these deeply-held grievances, returning IDPs fear a hostile reception from neighbours who caused them to flee their homes.

So, while certain IDPs have gone back to their farms, others are staying put in camps. Over 16,000 of them at the show ground in the western town of Eldoret want the government to compensate them before they leave. Some also want to be resettled in new locations, citing fear for their security.

Last month, Kibaki and Odinga toured various camps in the Rift Valley, western Kenya – the region worst affected by the post-election violence.

During the three-day visit, however, Minister for Special Programmes Naomi Shaaban told the IDPs not to expect too much. “If you had a (multi) storey building, don’t expect the government to build the same for you. We will not compensate you that way, but will help ensure you are able to start your life all over again.”

She did not explain exactly what support those still living in camps and the many tens of thousands more who are living with relatives could expect. The government has studiously avoided giving further details on compensation.

“The IDPs should get used to the idea that they are on their own. In fact, they should find their own ways of picking up the pieces and starting life afresh,” said Matilda Kanini, a lawyer based in Nairobi who is helping some of the IDPs who are living with relatives in the capital to dispose of their properties in the areas most affected by violence.

Phyllis Njoki, an elderly resident of one of the IDP camps, spoke for many when she said, “How can I go back to live with my neighbours…you see I am old and I can’t fight them, they will kill me this time round…they will kill me…”

Another IDP, Lydia Ombati, expressed her fears about security when she goes back, “I have visited my farm but my crops are uprooted while my neighbours’ are intact. When I ask what happened, I get blank stares. Tell me, how do I live comfortably with these people?”

However, Ombati told reporters that she had no choice but to go back to her farm because the government had said the IDP camps would be closed soon.

The Rift Valley provincial commissioner, Noor Hassan, told reporters that once everyone has returned to their farms, the government will rebuild schools, hospitals and other amenities destroyed during the violence.

But government projects typically take years to complete, so despite Hassan’s promise, the returning IPDs will probably have to rely on their own limited resources for some time to come.

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