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Experts Say Kenya Reconciliation Will Take Time


Kenya's leaders have set national reconciliation as a major goal after post-electoral violence killed 1,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Experts say that healing can occur fairly quickly for some victims, but reconciliation could take a long time. Correspondent Scott Bobb was in Kenya recently and has this report.

Nicholas Ochieng was living in central Kenya with his wife and two children when a few days after the election a gang attacked his home while he was out.

"They went there and threw petrol, then my family were burnt to ashes there," he said.

Richad Gitahi owned a small, second-hand electronics business in a slum in Nairobi.

He says he was attacked by gangs that robbed him and destroyed his shop.

Both men spent several weeks in camps for displaced people before being transported to their ancestral homes in western and central Kenya.

At one point, Ochieng and Gitahi could have been neighbors, testimony to Kenya's ethnic integration. But today they are among hundreds of thousands of people who have returned to their ethnic homelands and are afraid to go back to homes where they had lived sometimes for decades.

Nairobi Psychiatrist Frank Njenga says Kenyans had never seen such violence and many are traumatized.

"This, the first traumatic event is that of feeling alienation from our land, our neighbors and for many people from God himself," he said.

The hostilities were sparked by perceptions that members of a dominant ethnic group had rigged the elections in order to stay in power. The attacks brought retaliation. And the violence was fueled by long-standing rivalries over land and jobs, and by looters who took advantage of the breakdown in law and order.

Sociology professor Ken Ouko of Nairobi University notes that people from different ethnic groups lived in every region of the country. And intermarriage was common.

"The most unfortunately thing for the demographic structure of this country was the marital divisions that occurred. We had many cases of people who had married across ethnicities being separated from their spouses. And it was very sad," said Ouko.

He says children of these broken homes will be reluctant to marry outside their ethnic groups. And if the displaced remain in their ancestral homes, the country will be balkanized (splintered) into small fiefdoms.

Psychiatrist Frank Njenga says healing is possible, because the human psyche is remarkably resilient.

"The majority of the people who have gone through these experiences will get better. However, there is a portion of them, 20 or 30 percent, who will suffer the consequences of these traumatic experiences for many, many, many years to come," said Njenga.

He says it is important to quickly treat individuals showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, such as depression, anger and substance abuse.

Many of the displaced receive counseling at the camps. But a counselor at one of these, in the western city of Kisumu, James Dera, calls this "psychiatric first-aid" and says they will need long-term care.

"Counseling is a process. We need to continue that process until the whole healing process is reached," he said.

Dr. Njenga says a truth and reconciliation commission, similar to those set up in Rwanda, South Africa, and other post-conflict areas, can help national healing.

"Men and women of recognized integrity in this country would superintend a process around which people would speak out freely and be able to explain the historical and current injustices that they see, traumatic experience they have seen, political oppression, economic oppression and so on," said Dr. Njenga.

And he says people involved in the violence would also have an opportunity to acknowledge their guilt and seek forgiveness.

The Kenyan government and opposition have agreed to create a commission, though details have yet to be worked out. Sociologist Ken Ouko says the commission can help in another way.

"The biggest benefit is that it [the violence] will be documented. Right now there is a lot of speculation. And reconciliation cannot work with rumor and speculation. But if you put it down and you document it, then it is easier to go into policy design that can help with reconciliation," added Ouko.

Ouko says there is a new threat now from vigilante groups. These have been financed and used by politicians in the past. But now they are more organized and more independent. And they have been joined by groups of ordinary criminals ready to take advantage of any breakdown in law and order.

If these groups are not disbanded, he says, they will pose a continuing threat to peace and the reconciliation process so many Kenyans desire.

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