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Conflict in Kenya Leaves Thousands of Homeless Children in its Wake

Kenya's post-election violence has left some 150,000 children homeless. The signing of a power-sharing agreement has helped to stabilize the country, but many children still languish in displaced persons' camps. Their education has been disrupted and in some cases stopped altogether. Many children struggle with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Cathy Majtenyi visited camps across Kenya and filed this report for VOA.

Anne Gathoni recently enrolled at Arnesen Primary School in the town of Burnt Forest in Kenya's Rift Valley. The 12-year-old says she tries to concentrate on what the teacher is saying, but often ends up thinking about what happened to her and her family a few months ago.

"We came back from church on Sunday. After eating lunch, I could see smoke in the distance and I told my mother I thought houses were being burned in Burnt Forest. After some time, the attackers came and started attacking us,” Gathoni recalled. “The men tried to fight off the attackers, but were unsuccessful. After that, the women and children moved out of the houses, but we were all robbed. I fled with my mother."

Eleven-year-old Susan Waithaka's father was hacked to death during the mayhem. His body was dumped in a pit latrine, and later retrieved and given a proper burial. "I'm so worried. I get frightened," she says.

Susan and Anne are two of an estimated 150,000 children in Kenya displaced and traumatized by the violence that followed elections in December. The violence killed more than 1,000 people and drove up to 600,000 others from their homes.

The conflict had ethnic overtones, with certain groups burning and destroying the homes and businesses of other groups in tensions that date back to colonial times.

Mental health experts say post-traumatic stress disorder is a widespread problem plaguing children who fled their homes during the upheaval. Compounding their psychological distress are the living conditions they endure in the camps. They are often overcrowded or short of food and other necessities.

As a result, teachers and counselors say many children who have managed to continue their education are often unable to concentrate, or they exhibit behavioral problems.

Maina Ndegwa is head teacher at Arnesen Primary School in Burnt Forest. The school now educates children living in a nearby camp.

"They might decide to be absent any time, [or] come to school late. Most of them have lost hope, they just see as if the world has come to an end," says Ndegwa. "They just come at any time, they can absent themselves any time. Sometimes they fake that they are sick, not to come to school."

At a camp in the Rift Valley town of Nakuru, children who entered a play therapy program in early January initially drew pictures of houses on fire, people being struck by arrows and other disturbing scenes.

The younger children similarly acted out such scenes, says Elizabeth Mwarangu, a counselor volunteering for the Kenya Red Cross.

"They were building guns. They were using the blocks to make models of guns, and then they would hold them and they would lie down and say, 'I'm going to shoot the warrior, I'm going to shoot them,' [said] these small kids. And then the others would get the dolls and place a doll there and say, 'Oh, he is down,'" she added.

Mwarangu says the way the younger children played with the toys and the pictures that the older children drew showed that they had repressed bitterness, anger, fear, desire for revenge and other intense emotions. Counselors say addressing these emotions now through play therapy and other programs is vital to ensuring the long-term mental and emotional health of those innocents caught up in the mayhem.

Child protection counselor Ruth Gichengi explained, "If they are helped immediately, in fact the children heal faster than the adults. When we put them on recreation games, we are there for them, we listen to them as they narrate the stories, they draw, we really keep them active. We also help the parents in effective communication, so that they know how to communicate to their children during this time of trauma. It really works. They heal," she added.

She said the children that she works with have improved significantly since January.