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Uprooted Kenyans long to return home

More than 200,000 people remain in camps three months after ethnic clashes killed 1,200.

By Eliza BarclayContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 2008

Displaced: Kenyans fill water buckets at a camp in Nakuru for people forced from their homes in ethnic clashes earlier this year.

Eliza Barclay


Nakuru, Kenya

When the mob of young men came to his door on New Year's Eve, carrying kerosene jugs and machetes and bellowing an ominous war chant, farmer Moses Mbugua gathered his family of six and ran, just as he had after elections in 1992 and 1997.

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This time, however, he was one of 500,000 Kenyans who were forced to flee their homes as ethnic clashes that killed more than 1,200 people tore through the country in the wake of the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election.

Mr. Mbugua's family eventually found its way to a camp for other displaced members of their Kikuyu tribe outside this city in Kenya's southern Rift Valley region.

Three months later, the camp still houses 16,400 people in cramped white tents supplied by the United Nations. But unlike in past years when he was chased off his land by resentful neighbors, Mbugua says he will not return to the land he owns near the city of Eldoret.

"This time they destroyed everything: They burned my house and crops, stole my cattle, and killed some of my friends," he said. "We cannot go back there, because it is unsafe."

The prospects of internally displaced people (IDPs) like Mbugua returning home anytime soon were further dampened this week as rioting broke out in several cities after the opposition suspended power-sharing talks with the government. Compounding the situation is the fact that many of the IDPs cannot return home to till the fields, prompting concerns of a looming food shortage at a time when prices for basic foods are skyrocketing.

About half of the IDPs are still in camps, while the other half are with family members or receiving shelter from other communities, according to the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance.

The Kenya Land Alliance says that more than half of the IDPs tilled some of Kenya's richest farmland in the Rift Valley. According to a February assessment by the government and international NGOs, land cultivation may be reduced by up to 30 percent during the April-May planting season because of farmer displacement and higher production costs. The assessment concluded that the cutbacks in planting will likely lead to "decreased food production and negatively impacted food security throughout Kenya."

The timing for a reduced food supply in Kenya would be difficult, as swiftly climbing food and fuel prices, a falling dollar, and the demand for biofuels are straining World Food Program (WFP) stocks allocated for hunger crises. Food reserves are at their lowest in 30 years while prices of staple foods have risen by up to 40 percent in the last six months, according to the WFP.