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Some of Kenya's Displaced Seek to Return to Ancestral Homes

Aid officials in Kenya are warning that the country faces a serious humanitarian crisis because of the 300,000 people who have been displaced by violence that followed the country's disputed presidential election. VOA's Scott Bobb visited a camp for displaced people near Nairobi where many of the traumatized victims say they want to go back to their ancestral homes.

Children play on the swinging gate of a cow paddock inside the Jamhuri Trade Fairgrounds, a sprawling agricultural complex on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Laundry is drying on a fence next to a row of latrines made from tin sheets. Families are camped in a shed of cattle stalls in front of which burns a cooking fire tended by an elderly woman.

The Jamhuri Fairgrounds lie near Kibera, one of Nairobi's largest slums. When violence erupted in December, following Kenya's elections, several-thousand people took refuge here. Five-thousand more came daily for food and health care.

The director of the African Evangelist Enterprises that coordinates relief services here is Reverend Steven Mbogo. He says besides caring for the physical needs of the displaced, a major challenge is dealing with the psychological effects of their ordeal.

"Many of these people were traumatized," he said. "You had even children who would tell what they had witnessed, either people being killed or beaten up. So there was lots of counseling that took place."

One-fourth of the camp's 200 volunteers are counselors. Mbogo says even they need counseling periodically.

New arrivals continue to stream in, a young woman balancing a suitcase on her head, a man with a rolled-up mattress over his shoulder.

One of these is Mary Akinyi. A young woman with a round face, she came from Thika, a nearby town in a traditionally Kikuyu area. She fled after gangs armed with machetes told her family to leave or be killed.

"We want to go home because we can not do anything here, no work, no school," she said. "So we are feeling bad."

But the home Akinyi seeks is not Thika. It is her ancestral home in the traditionally Luo region in western Kenya.

"We want to go Siaya, Kisumu," she said. "We do not want to [go] back from [to] Thika again. Because many people are Kikuyu. They want to kill us so we can not go back again."

The elections inflamed long-standing ethnic tensions. A great deal of the violence came from traditional inhabitants in a given region seeking to evict the more recent settlers there.

Relief official Mbogo says this has raised a major issue for the country.

"Most of the people who are being repatriated, they are headed for their rural homes, their ancestral homes, which raises lots of questions politically, whether or not we are demarcating, Balkanizing the whole country according to their tribes," he said.

Richard Gitahi is a somber young man sitting alone on a rock in the middle of the camp. He owned a small business in Kibera that repaired and sold used electronic products. He says he was resting at his house when he was attacked by gangs that robbed him and destroyed his shop.

Gitahi is originally from the traditionally Kikuyu area of Murang'a, 70 kilometers north of Nairobi. But he left home 10 years ago and lost contact with his family. As a result, he says he has no place to go.

A counselor says that even if Gitahi located his family he could not go home because he does not have money to buy the gifts that are required by tradition to take to his family.

Mbogo says if the political leaders do their job then perhaps there will be peace. But he says the wounds of the conflict will take a long time to heal.

"Some of the people, they will tell you, the neighbors I lived with, someone with whom we shared cooking oil or fire or a matchbox; I could eat in their houses," he said. "They would say these are the same people who turned against me. These are the same people who occupy my house. To win back their trust, it will take time and possibly it could be a younger generation."

At the same time, Mbogo says, the violence brought out the best in some people. Many Kenyans donated food, clothing and shelter to the victims. And religious and civic groups quickly organized facilities in many areas to care for them.

Nevertheless, he says a great deal of resources are still needed to deal with the humanitarian crisis that he believes will last long after a political solution is reached.