- Six years is not a short time.
- 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.
- Some Kenyans have died in the camp and are buried there, which means those left behind have emotional attachment to the camp.
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