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UNHCR Organizes Visits to Kenya's Rift Valley

The U.N. refugee agency says it is organizing a "go-and-see" visit to help internally displaced people decide whether they want to return to their homes in the Rift Valley province of western Kenya. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva the visit follows the government's launch of a resettlement program for internally displaced people.

An estimated 350,000 people fled their homes following post-election violence in Kenya early this year, about 90 percent of them are from the western Rift Valley.

The fierce ethnic clashes resulted in about 1,200 deaths, widespread destruction, and looting of homes.

U.N. refugee spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, says the day-long visit will allow representatives of the internally displaced to see the security situation, infrastructure and livelihood possibilities. Once the representatives share their impressions, she says internally displaced persons will be able to make an informed decision about whether they want to return home.

She says the representatives and aid agency officials left early Tuesday in four mini-vans. She says some will have to travel about 250 kilometers to reach their home villages.

"When they arrive, they will meet local authorities, representatives of other communities in the area as part of a reconciliation process. I think most of them would be very interested to inspect their homes," Pagonis said. "In many cases, their houses have been burned to the ground. Others have been vandalized. Roofing material, mainly corrugated iron sheets, could have been stolen. So, this is always something that makes a great emotional impact on anybody who has been displaced from their homes to go back and see what condition it is like and what are the possibilities of resuming their life in that place."

Pagonis says people have started to move closer to their villages in many locations in the Rift Valley. She says some people left larger camps for smaller ones located closer to their farms.

The reason for this, she says, is so people can work their land during the day and return to the relative safety of the IDP camp at night. She notes some of the displaced say they still do not feel safe spending the night in their homes.

"The planting season is really starting and many farmers and land owners want to return home provided their safety is guaranteed. They want to plant their crops and this is clearly an important step to be able to make, to plant the crops also to be able to harvest them," added Pagonis. "Some people have still got reservations about returning home and they want to sell their land and be resettled in other parts of the country. But, the planting season is certainly an impetus."

Unlike farmers, Pagonis says business people are less inclined to go back to the homes they fled. She says this is because they have lost everything and have nothing to which to go back.

She says the UNHCR is planning to organize more "go-and-see" visits to help the internally displaced decide whether or not they wish to return to their communities.