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RIGHTS-KENYA: Plight of Kisii Refugees Grim

Kwamboka Oyaro

KISII, Kenya, Jan 11 2008 (IPS) - A group of men who a couple of weeks ago were busy at work huddle together idle. They have grown tired of rehashing tales of their horrendous experiences at the hands of their hitherto neighbours and friends. Now they watch the entrance to the church here, in the hope that any visitor brings something to silence their rumbling stomachs.

"I haven’t eaten since yesterday. We gave the little food we received from well wishers to our children," says a man in his mid-40s. The other men around him nod in agreement.

A woman cuddling a baby is unable to talk. Tears trickle down her cheeks. IPS learns that her husband and older children may have been killed in the violence.

About 2,000 men, women, and children have been camped at the Kisii Cathedral for more than a week. The cathedral is in Kisii town, in western Kenya, about 380 kilometres from the capital Nairobi.

The refugees at the cathedral escaped the violence that has rocked the country since the Electoral Commission of Kenya announced that Mwai Kibaki had won the Dec. 27 presidential elections.

Claims of massive rigging in favour of Kibaki resulted in widespread violence that has displaced 250,000 Kenyans and killed over 500.

The government brought the refugees here from Eldoret in the Rift Valley, Kericho and Sotik, which are east of Kisii. These towns – in the neighbouring Kalenjin community – have been hostile to the Kisii people, accusing them of voting overwhelmingly for President Kibaki.

The majority of Kalenjins supported the Orange Democratic Movement’s presidential candidate Raila Odinga.

The people at the cathedral have nowhere else to call home. They sold their ancestral land in Kisii when they moved away – driven by overcrowding. Recent reports show that the population density is approaching 500 people per square kilometre.

In Kericho, some of the Kisii people were farmers, while others were employed as tea pickers.

"I was brought here just because I am a Kisii but I don’t know where to go," a man at the cathedral told IPS. He explained that he was born in Kericho, married and raised his family there, and has nowhere else to call home. A forlorn look engulfed him as he watched his two children play not far away.

"We lost everything," a man in his 50s told IPS.

Some had their properties burnt, while others were scared to go back to their houses after being threatened with death, the man said, describing the plight of the majority of those at the camp. They ran away without carrying anything from their houses.

"We have left our friends behind. We don’t know anyone here. After we sold our small land in the 1970s and relocated to Kericho, we lost contact with our people," a woman in her 30s told IPS. "The relatives we knew then are now dead. We are strangers to their offspring. How do you go to introduce yourself to them? I don’t think they are able to accommodate us," the woman said, spreading her arms resignedly.

"When you give the children ripe bananas, they eat even the peels. You leave the place feeling with such a tense feeling of helplessness," Eileen Aganyo, a local who was visiting the refugees, told IPS.

Churches and local communities in Kisii have tried to assist the refugees but they can only do so much. The Catholic faithful contributed money and foodstuffs last week to help meet the displaced people’s basic needs. But this was a temporary measure, since the people here do not have much food at all during this time of the year.

The maize harvest – of the local staple food – is a still a month off. Meanwhile, people are forced to buy food for their consumption since the crops harvested during the previous season are exhausted.

Visitors and the displaced blame the government for ignoring the plight of the refugees in Kisii town. The media seems to have ignored them as well.

Stories are filed from here, but they do not enjoy the prominence given to those coming from other areas with internally displaced people, reporters for Kenya’s major daily newspapers told IPS in Kisii.

"This denies readers information about the situation here in Kisii. It also denies the refugees the right to any help," said a reporter.

A woman at the cathedral camp mourned: "We shall starve to death at this camp, unless the government comes to our help. We played our role by voting, why are we being punished for a mistake we didn’t do? We did not steal votes and provide wrong tallies. We want to go back to our lives, where we were depending on ourselves, taking our children to school, and living in peace."

Help for refugees in other parts of the country and even for those who fled to Uganda is flowing.

Reports indicate that over 3,000 Kenyans have moved to Uganda and are being assisted by the Red Cross in that country.

Ezekiel Mutua, Kenya’s director of information, told IPS that he would act immediately to ensure the people in Kisii get help.

"The government actually has surplus supplies to all these people. No one should starve or lack shelter. I will address the situation in one hour," he said. This was one week ago.

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