Sun, Dec 28, 2008 - Page 13 News List

The forgotten survivors of Kenya’s post-election massacre

Kenya’s worst-ever ethnic violence was sparked by a presidential election held one year ago. Since then, a peace deal to end the strife has held. But for many victims, the struggle to rebuild their lives has barely begun

By Xan Rice  /  THE GUARDIAN , KIAMBAA, KENYA

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In a village without roofs, the grass grows on bedroom floors. In the fields, there are weeds where maize used to grow. On a blackened wall, a message is written in charcoal: “One day, one time, all these will be a thing of the past.”

A yellow-billed kite soars high above the patch of ground where the Kenya Assemblies of God church stood. Small scraps of burnt clothing litter the earth — memories of the dead not yet buried.

Many of the living have moved far from the ghosts of Kiambaa. Hundreds more, including 40-year-old Grace Githuthwa, can be found crammed inside tiny white tents behind a police post that was built too late to matter.

Kenya’s worst-ever ethnic violence was sparked by a presidential election held a year ago yesterday. At least 1,300 people died and more than 300,000 fled their homes. Since then, an internationally brokered peace deal to end the strife has held, and the coalition government is intact. Tourists have returned to the game parks and beaches.

But for many victims, the struggle to rebuild lives has barely begun. About 80,000 people displaced last January have yet to be resettled, according to a recent report by the Kenya Human Rights Commission. One issue is money. The other reason, especially in Kiambaa, is fear. “How can we live here after what happened?” asked Githuthwa.

The fires began on New Year’s Eve. Githuthwa received a panicked call from her parents. Mobs of young Kalenjin men were burning houses of Kikuyu families, the ethnic group of President Mwai Kibaki, who had been declared the winner of the dubious poll. The attackers’ fury was only partly political: in the Rift Valley the Kikuyu had long been perceived as interlopers.

Githuthwa, a passion-fruit farmer, decided it was too dangerous to stay at home. With her husband, Simon, their two sons, two daughters and three-year-old niece, Miriam, visiting from Nairobi for Christmas, they spent the night outside the nearby Kenya Assemblies of God church. By mid-morning on New Year’s Day, when the smoke was rising from nearby homes and the war songs were getting louder, hundreds of Kikuyu had crammed into the church.

The attackers, their faces painted white, locked the church door. Paraffin-soaked mattresses were pushed against the windows. A match was struck.

Githuthwa’s children managed to force their way out through the window. She followed, with Miriam in her arms. A young Kalenjin man ripped Miriam away, and threw her back into the inferno. “Life is not forever,” he shouted at Githuthwa, beating her away.

As she fled she found Simon lying by the road. His head was bleeding. A good Samaritan — a Kalenjin man — took Simon to hospital in his car.

The next morning, as Red Cross workers pulled tiny charred bodies from the embers, Githuthwa hoped that somehow Miriam had survived.

The local mortuary received 35 corpses. The bodies, many of them burned beyond recognition, remain today in nearby Eldoret. Most are still unidentified; DNA results have not yet been released.


AFTERMATH

In the two weeks after the attack, the Githuthwa family endured the cold nights outside the main Catholic church in Eldoret. Conditions were scarcely better after they were moved to makeshift tents in the town’s agricultural showground, along with 20,000 others.

Many other Kiambaan residents had left, going hundreds of kilometers away to relatives in Nairobi or Central province, the traditional Kikuyu heartland. But the families of Githuthwa and her husband had lived around Eldoret since independence; they had nowhere “safe” to go. In May they were shifted again. Under Operation Return Home, designed to empty the camps, they were promised about US$120 to cover basic needs, and a further US$300 for shelter.

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