Displaced Kenyans balk at government push to go home

Kenya has begun a move to resettle the tens of thousands of people who fled ethnic clashes months ago.

Rich Clabaugh

Row after row of white tents bustle with life. Women wash clothes in foaming buckets, smoke from cooking fires wafts into the air, and children play in the narrow alleys between the shelters.

But it is not supposed to be like this. A week into a government program to return home thousands of Kenyans who fled ethnic clashes that killed more than 1,500 in the wake of Kenya's disputed Dec. 27 elections, the sprawling camp in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret should be emptying.

Rachel Wanjiru Njuguna speaks for many when she says she has no intention of going home despite the arrival of rains that make life in the camp miserable.

"We are not ready," she says, looking up from a bucket filled with washing. "The problem is security. Nothing has changed since we were forced to leave."

She arrived with her two young children in January. She does not think she will leave for at least another couple of months.

About 16,000 people are still packed into the camp, one of several scattered throughout the area.

Elsewhere, people have begun the process of heading home to rebuild the lives that have been put on hold.

Buses, Army vans, and cattle trucks provided by the government have been packed with families clutching whatever belongings they managed to salvage before they fled months ago.

The $460 million program is targeting the 168,000 people living in camps during its first two weeks. It will be followed by a second phase directed at hundreds of thousands more sheltering with relatives.

Returnees – most of whom till the Rift Valley's fertile soil – are being given food for the next three months, seeds, fertilizer, and cash to kick-start their lives.

And the government says it has built 72 new police stations, mostly in the Rift Valley, to guarantee no return to violence.

Not yet safe enough to return, say many

It's not enough for the people living at the Eldoret camp who say they want to see reconciliation before they go back.

Ms. Njuguna says the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, and President Mwai Kibaki may have reached a deal but tensions remain high.

"That's just Raila and Kibaki," she adds. "We, as ordinary Kenyan citizens, have not made up."

Reconciliation is expected to take longest in towns like Eldoret, which saw some of the worst ethnic violence after December's poll, which observers agree was flawed.

Longstanding rivalries over land and power erupted into vicious attacks.

In the worst incident of the whole crisis, 30 people died when a mob set fire to a church where people were hiding just outside Eldoret.

Scars still fresh

Philip Kimunya survived by holding his hands over his face as he fought his way through the burning church and escaped through the windows.

Now his hands are scarred, swollen, and a constant reminder of the incident.

"It is up to my father whether we return," he says in gentle Swahili. "I don't want to, though."

The violence ended with a political deal brokered by Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations. Odinga agreed to join President Kibaki in a government of national unity.

Resettling displaced people was high on the agenda during the power-sharing government's first cabinet meeting on Thursday, amid concerns that having so many farmers in camps could worsen a looming economic and food crisis. Many of the country's most fertile fields currently stand empty, unplanted.

In an update this week, the president announced that more than 85,000 had left camps as part of Operation Rudi Nyumbani – Operation Return Home.

But he acknowledged concerns about security.

"I am aware of the fears and reservations expressed by some of the displaced people," said Kibaki, whose election to a second term sparked the waves of unrest. "I want to assure them that the government has put in place adequate security arrangements for their safety."

The reassurances do not go far in Eldoret.

James Njoroge says: "On security, reconciliation is No. 1. The police cannot stay forever, but our neighbors will."

Reconciliation talks started by Mr. Annan continue at a Nairobi hotel as Kibaki and Odinga teams try to come to grips with land reform and healing ethnic rifts.

Civil society groups have warned that the talks have stalled since the two sides agreed to share power.

Dekha Ibrahim, convener of Concerned Citizens for Peace, says the politicians are struggling to move on from the short-term political agenda to the long-term problems that need addressing for true reconciliation.

"They need to stop thinking of their own gains and start looking at society's needs," she said.

Many in the camps share that view, and for them it means that home seems as far away as ever.

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