Six years is not a short time.
A child born at the height of the post-election violence in early 2008 walks herself to school every morning.
A fresh graduate who joined employment that same year has worked long enough to get promoted.
Look at it another way. In 2008, popular hip hop outfit Camp Mulla had not been formed. Members were 13-year-olds preoccupied with primary school work and maybe dreaming of stardom.
Today, the music group has had runaway success — not to mention a split. The ex-queen of the group, 19-year-old Miss Karun, who has since gone solo, even has the clout to host President Uhuru Kenyatta to a song listening in party. In 2008, she was just emerging from her late childhood.
But for Kenyans stuck inside Uganda’s Kiryandongo refugee settlement in Masindi District, some 180km north of Kampala, life does not seem to have moved an inch in those six years.
The acrid smell of smoke from burning houses, the depressing sound of crying children and wailing mothers, the disturbing sight of blood, dead bodies scattered on roadsides and farms – and the feeling of fatigue from walking long distances, are all still fresh in the minds of the 1,000 refugees.
They walked into the neighbouring country with nothing and they still don’t have much, save for a two-acre piece of land the government of Uganda allocated each family to build a house and farm.
And although the land is theirs for keeps for 100 years, most families do not have the motivation to build permanent houses.
True, they are grateful to their hosts, but that does not stop them from feeling like the Israelites sitting by the rivers of Babylon singing alien songs.
Mulokonyi village is the site that hosts the Kenyans. The settlement is about 12km\sq and is run by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, that also caters for refugees from Sudan, DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and some internally displaced Ugandans.
At the height of the Kenyan conflict, and before South Sudan got its independence allowing its nationals to returned home, there were more than 25,000 people in the settlements.
The World Food Programme has regularly provided them with food rations and a nearby health centre with maternity facilities, children’s ward, lab, and dispensary offers various medical services. The Ugandan government and aid organisations run a primary and secondary school.
Despite all these, living far away from home, relatives, loved ones, makes it no honeymoon for refugees. Nonetheless, they have consistently turned down offers to return home.
“We hear rumours about the (Kenyan) government’s programmes to rehabilitate us. No one has talked to us about them,” says Mr Joseph Karanja.
He says refugees want reassurance that the conditions that led to the 2007/2008 conflict have been fully resolved.
After that they expect a decent compensation package.
President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto seem to be doing everything in the book to help Kenyans move on after that dark chapter in Kenya’s modern history.
The refugees keenly follow events back home from far.
They know some of the changes that have taken place in Kenya – in fact, this is one of the reasons they are reluctant to return.
They are anxious of feeling like strangers in their own country.
Among changes these refugees have missed being part of is the unveiling of the 2010 Constitution that devolved power in 47 counties led by governors.
The internally displaced persons, who remained in Kenya, have the advantage of having taken part in these events. Many of them even voted on March 4. Not so their counterparts in Uganda.
RESETTLEMENT OF IDPs
About 2,000 Kenyans crossed into Uganda at the height of the post-election violence in early 2008.
Thousands more were displaced within Kenya’s borders.
President Kenyatta’s government has mounted efforts to resettle IDPs and close down camps. The Kenyans in Uganda have also been called upon to return home.
This month, the President and his deputy visited four IDP camps in Rift Valley where they handed over Sh400,000 each to over 8,000 families.
They advised IDPs to use the money wisely in buying land or building homes.
However, the refugees in Uganda are not impressed with the incentives. Mr Karanja, who is also the immediate former chairman of the Kenyan refugees, said he will not return to Kenya given the current conditions.
In 2008, Mr Karanja fled from Busia to Mulanda transit camp and later Kiryandongo.
He explains that instead of the Sh400,000, the government should give displaced people land and build houses for them since life in Kenya is too expensive for such a small amount.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Mr Karanja, who is still bitter with the people that displaced him, blames the Kenyan government for failure to provide security to its citizen.
“Home is home, but life is expensive there. Sh400,000 can only buy an acre of land. Will that money help us? The government should know that we have been away for almost six years so we should be considered,” he said.
He, however, says that if the government insists on giving money, it should not be less than Sh1 million.
“It was because of the government’s failure to give us security that we are here,” he says.
The refugee says he and his counterparts welcome the on going International criminal court (ICC) trials in The Hague. One problem though, Mr Karanja says, is that “the court is biased and selective”. He says none of those he thinks incited the violence is on trial.
URGED TO RETURN
Mr Douglas Asiimwe, the Uganda officer in charge of refugees, places the number of registered Kenyan refugees in Uganda at 916. However, the Kenyans say the number has gone up due to the more than 300 children who have been born in the settlement over the years.
Mr Apollo David Kazungu, Uganda’s Commissioner for Refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister told Lifestyle that there are teams from Kenya that were in Uganda to talk to the displaced people about going back home.
“We have encouraged them to return home but that should be voluntary; no one should be forced to leave,” Mr Kazungu says.
Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation commission, whose term has since expired, visited the refugees in Kiryandongo to listen to their experiences and grievances.
Little is known about their findings and recommendations.
SECURITY IN EXILE
Being a Kenyan refugee in Uganda has many facets, which could be holding back the refugees, some of who were landless in Kenya. The two acres of land each family has gives them a sense of belonging and security.
They have built semi-permanent homes with mud walls and grass roofs and they grow crops, which they sell upon harvesting. Back in Kenya, they don’t expect any such land – unless, as they say, the government gives them more money that it is offering.
Mr Jackson Wasila, 42, is still agonising about the violence that separated him from his family.
The man who lived with his wife Janet Cherotich, and their three children in Sabote village in the Rift Valley, does not believe there is political will in Kenya to bridge tribal rifts and solve the land question.
“My wife is Kalenjin and I am Luhya, the two tribes fought and we could not stay together after that,” he says.
Mr Wasila says he will one day return to Kenya but not to Sabote village because he needs a neutral place not dominated by the two tribes.
FAR FROM IDEAL
But despite the bold faces refugees put on, and their defiance, life in Mulokonyi village is far from ideal. Health, education and job opportunities still elude them.
The law does not allow refugees to be involved in gainful employment. However, families have grown in size and the children who left Kenya on their mothers’ back, are now teens; their much older siblings are young adults.
Ms Mercy Njeri, a single mother of three, says before the government of Kenya and UNHCR think about taking them back, a separate compensation for their grown-up children must be considered. She says some of the children they came with are now old enough to have their own families.
The story of Ms Njeri, a voluntary community social worker under the African Action Help International, an NGO operating in Kiryandongo Refugee Camp, also tells of the grim times ahead as children grow older.
Her first born daughter, 19-year-old Lucy Nyakairu, a Senior Two student, has disappeared, having left home in February. She might have run away with a Ugandan man outside the camp.
For families living on handouts, the needs of teenagers are more than their parents can afford. This has forced some out of the camps to seek employment in nearby villages.
Take Haron Mungai for example. The 22-year-old who hails from Rumuruti, dropped out of school in Senior Three at Panyadoli Secondary School – a school that also teaches vocational skills. Mungai says his parents could not afford school fees.
He now rides a boda boda (motorcycle taxi), earning between Ksh250 and Ksh400 a day. Mr Mungai, like other refugees Lifestyle talked to, is not sure of returning to Kenya as he does not know where to start. He has grown up in Uganda, where he has got used to the rhythm of life.
Mr Mungai narrates that some Kenyans have died in the camp and are buried there, which means those left behind have emotional attachment to the camp.
Ms Ruth Irungu, the chairperson of the Kenyan community in Kiryandongo, declined to comment on all issues raised by the refugees claiming that she needs clearance from the government.
However, Mr Joseph Githu, 50, who is the secretary of an organisation for people living with disabilities in Kiryandongo, looks towards the East African Community as the future of his family.
“It’s hard to compensate us for what we lost. Life, property, psychological torture — how much can you compensate for that?” he asks.
Mr Githu says he is going to stay in Uganda, educate his last-born son, who is now in Senior Five, and wait for the East African Federation to take shape. And that, he hopes, will give his family a footing in Uganda.