Muddy Notebook

February 14, 2008

Life in a refugee camp

Filed under: Uncategorized — carolynthewriter @ 3:12 am
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A pretty good story came over the wires yesterday about life for Kenyans in a displaced person’s camp. (Okay, the writer mixed up the terms “refugee,” someone who flees to another country, and “displaced person,” someone who has moved within his or her borders. This happens all the time in journalism because it’s easier to use the shorter, less jargon-y “refugee,” even if the meaning is wrong according to international law. Still, let’s let that pass to look at the rest of the content.)

And the rest of the content is a realistic portrayal, one I saw when I managed a refugee camp in Macedonia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. There was crime in my 6,000-person camp, scuffling for supplies handed out, and attempts by good, decent people  to make a normal life for their family out of a most abnormal situation. In case you didn’t see it, here’s the Associated Press story.

By Katharine Houreld

ASSOCIATED PRESS

ELDORET, Kenya — Since their home was torched six weeks ago, Peter Monderu’s six children sleep tangled like puppies on the cold ground.

 

His 9-year-old girl bears the scars of a horrific arson attack on a church that left 50 people dead, and his fearful wife startles awake at the least sound.

 

The Monderus are among 600,000 people driven from their homes by clashes sparked by a dispute over who won Kenya’s Dec. 27 presidential election, according to a U.N. report yesterday.

 

About half have taken refuge with family or friends. The rest are camping out — at prisons, churches, police stations and fairgrounds, such as such as the one where the Monderus found a haven in the western town of Eldoret.

 

Aid agencies fear the makeshift camps are creating new problems for the once stable East African country. The camps are breeding grounds for disease, violence and crime. And they sometimes fan the already heated ethnic tensions that forced Kenyans to flee in the first place, as the poorest of the poor in one group see the displaced of another group getting international aid.

 

Observers don’t see the camps emptying soon, after more than 1,000 people died in the fighting. Even if a political solution is found for the election dispute, some fear the settlements may mark a permanent shift in Kenya’s ethnic makeup.

 

Much of the postelection violence has pitted an array of ethnic groups against President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu people. In western Kenya, some areas have been emptied of Kikuyus. Kikuyus, in turn, have inflicted reprisals on opposition supporters.

No Kikuyus are left in the countryside surrounding Eldoret. In the enclave of Huruma, within the city limits, Kikuyu refugees are crammed five to a room. Some 15,000 are camping on Eldoret’s fairgrounds, and more arrive every day, with police riding guard on trucks piled with salvaged furniture.

 

According to preliminary U.N. reports, girls and women have been forced to trade sex for food and protection in camps.

 

Alexis Moens, emergency coordinator of the medical aid group Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), said camp dwellers also suffer hygiene problems. The group is trying to monitor the camps for potential epidemics.

 

“Many of these people will see the rainy season in these camps,” Moens said, warning that the wet weather due in four weeks will worsen conditions.

Opportunities for reconciliation are few after the Balkanization of Kenyan communities that previously lived peacefully together.

Residents in city slums and poor farming communities watch jealously as displaced neighbors are given shiny new cooking pots, blankets and health care, forgetting the armed mobs and charred homes those people had to flee.

 

In the camps, meanwhile, memories of atrocities are swapped around campfires, leaping larger than the flames with each retelling.

 

“I can’t sleep,” Monderu said, clutching his stomach while telling of his anxieties.

He described seeing neighbors held at machete point while jeering attackers asked who wanted peace. Those who raised their hands were cut down, he said.

 

As Monderu spoke, children from neighboring tents gathered to listen, eyes wide.

“We have nowhere else to go because all the houses are destroyed and we have nothing to rebuild with,” Monderu said. “Even the clothes I am wearing are borrowed.”

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