Despite Kenya's recent violence, Nairobi remained a refuge for those fleeing other horrors
Sasha Chanoff, a resident of Somerville, is the founder and executive director of the humanitarian agency Mapendo International, which protects and cares for forgotten and at-risk refugees in Africa. He has just arrived in Kenya.
By Sasha Chanoff
May 12, 2008
NAIROBI -- For a great many Kenyans, January and February 2008 were the most harrowing months of their lives, when post-election violence, which displaced over 300,000 people and claimed the lives of about 1,200, threatened to crush the country.
As I walked by a store here in Nairobi today I saw a poster of Nelson Mandela with words of encouragement to this beleaguered nation, “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain top of our desires.”
With successful peace negotiations, Kenya has stepped back from the brink of war. The International media trumpeted Kenya’s woes to the world over the last few months. But there is an unpublicized story here, the story of refugees living in Nairobi, people from Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and other countries, and the impact of the Kenya’s violence on them.
I visited John today, a Congolese refugee living on the impoverished outskirts of Nairobi, with his wife, Sara, and their four children. John (not his real name) is one of perhaps 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers who have fled violence and persecution at home and lives in or around Nairobi (at least 270,000 additional refugees live in Kenya’s two refugee camps, Dadaab, near the Somali border, and Kakuma camp, near Sudan’s border).
Refugee camps, the place where refugees receive assistance, are sometimes too dangerous for ethnic minorities, single women, orphans and others. Threat of rape and attack force some refugees to flee to urban areas, where they live unseen by the international community and face similar threats as well as police harassment.
John comes from a tribe of Tutsis living in the Congo, where ongoing violence has claimed the lives of approximately 5.4 million people in the past decade, more deaths than any conflict since World War II.
In 1998, as war erupted in Congo, the president sent a message over the radio to his country, reported by the BBC as saying, “bring a machete, spear, arrow, hoe, spade, rake, nail, truncheon, electric iron, barbed wire, stone and the like, dear listeners, to kill the… Tutsi.” It is a complex web of national and international interests, power, diamonds, gold and other precious resources, and rebel groups, often supported by foreign governments, that has fueled Congo’s unprecedented mayhem and politically engineered ethnic violence.
For John, it wasn’t complex. People were out to kill him and his family. Over the next six years, Rwandan genocidaires and other rebel militias murdered many of John’s friends and family, but he moved around and kept safe. (I remember all of this first hand -- I was part of a US rescue team that was sent into the Congo to extract survivors of these massacres in 2000, when I helped to evacuate some of John’s relatives.)
It wasn’t until 2004, when no place in Congo seemed secure, that John gathered his wife, three children and parents and siblings and crossed the border to neighboring Burundi, where he was placed in a refugee camp called Gatumba and given refugee status, which gave him access to food, shelter and other assistance.
Two months later, extremists crossed the border from Congo, surrounded the camp and massacred the Tutsi refugees there, using guns, grenades, gasoline fires and machetes. They killed and wounded over 250 people.
I met John two weeks after that massacre in Burundi. He told me how he had seen the killers coming through the dark, and how he jumped into his tent, grabbed his wife and two children, and fled into the night with the first crackle of gunfire. As he ran, a bullet tore through a loose section of shirt next to his underarm.
Throughout that night, the longest of his life, he listened to the grenades and gunshots, shouts and screams. At dawn, all was quiet. He returned to find his parents dead and his two-year-old son shot through the shoulder and barely alive.
Many survivors of the massacre refused to go to a refugee camp after that attack. John hid in a shack with his family in a rundown area of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. There was no agency assisting him, but he survived through the money a relative in the US sent. At one point, the killers sent word that they would find the rest of the survivors and do away with them.
John and his family fled again. He went through Rwanda, where a similar refugee camp massacre (the Mudende camp massacre) had claimed the lives of other Congolese Tutsi refugees, and arrived in Kenya in 2007. His wife gave birth to their fourth child here.
But in Kenya he learned that Tutsis had been threatened in Kakuma refugee camp, the place where he could receive assistance to survive. He decided to take his chances in Nairobi.
Then the political violence smashed Kenya. John and his family hunkered down in their rented room, bolted the door and listened. In the dark, without electricity, the crack of firearms and explosions outside his door reminded him of that longest night of his life. His children cried, from fear, hunger and thirst, but it was too dangerous to go outside. Finally, the violence died down and John emerged from his home to forage for food and water amidst the chaos of Nairobi.
When I talked to John today I saw the same look that he had back in 2004; his eyes carry so much trauma and fear. He constantly glances around, seemingly wary of some impending attack. But there’s also hope and resilience there. John is just one of countless urban refugees whose struggle to survive has gone unnoticed and unattended. He lives in a limbo world, wondering if his family will ever be safe.
Urban refugees are the forgotten people of Africa. Theirs is the untold story in Kenya. John has passed through the valley of the shadow of death again and again, in Congo, in Burundi, and now in Kenya. The mountaintop of his desires is not as lofty as Nelson Mandela’s vision. John’s hope is simple: safety, a home, a life for his family that is free from persecution and fear.
For more information about Mapendo, a partner of Tufts University's Institute for Global Leadership, please visit its website, at www.mapendo.org. For information on how you can contribute to the Passport blog, please contact the Globe's assistant foreign editor, Kenneth Kaplan, at K_Kaplan@globe.com.