Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans forced from their homes seek safety but find more problems

AP Photo XRG101, XRG103, XRG105

By KATHARINE HOURELD

Associated Press Writer

ELDORET, Kenya (AP) -- 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, 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 United Nations report Monday.

About half have taken refuge with family or friends. The rest are camping out -- at prisons, churches, police stations and fairgrounds, like 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 a once stable East African country struggling to pull itself back from the brink of violence that has left burned homes scarring the green hills of the Rift Valley and other parts of western Kenya.

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 be the beginning of 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, while violence also has been aimed at other groups thought to have supported Kibaki. 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. They often are attacked as they make their way to the latrines at night.

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 provide medical services and 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 about 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.

Then, he added, the church in which his daughter was sheltering was set on fire with dozens of women and children inside. As many as 50 people burned to death in that attack, which prompted enraged Kikuyus to set a house sheltering several families on fire a few weeks later.

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."

Abbas Gullet, secretary general of the Kenyan Red Cross, said he has hopes the country can rebuild because Kenyans are resilient.

"People will go back if the government can provide security for them," he said. "That is the big challenge."

But among the displaced, the future looks bleak. They lack money to move, their property accumulated over a lifetime destroyed in an instant and no relatives left in their traditional tribal areas for support.

"Our condition is very pathetic because we don't see as if we have any future, any hope," Wellington Macharia said as he helped his wife down from a truck that delivered more refugees to the Eldoret fairgrounds.

A Kikuyu, he has lived in the west since he was born in 1958. Now his home and business are in ashes, and he has no relatives or other connections in his tribe's "ancestral lands" to which his attackers screamed he should return as they chased him with machetes.

"We were born here," he said. "We don't know any other place."

But, when asked whether they would return home if the opposition and government struck a political deal, his wife replied quietly, "I don't know."