KENYA: Post-poll violence a ‘national disaster’, says Red Cross

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Kenya is in the throes of a humanitarian “national disaster” amid post-election violence that has left scores dead, tens of thousands displaced beyond reach of immediate assistance and many more destined to be dependent on aid for several months to come, according to the Red Cross.

“The country has been riddled with insecurity over the last few days and there are many areas we cannot access,” Kenya Red Cross Secretary General Abbas Gullet told reporters in Nairobi on 1 January after conducting an assessment by helicopter to western parts of the country.

Video footage shot during this mission showed smoke billowing from homes and farms, crowds of displaced civilians seeking sanctuary in churches and police stations, and usually busy main arteries empty of traffic and dotted with roadblocks manned by gangs.

"Worst-case scenario"

Gullet said his organisation’s 48 branches had put in place contingency plans for the elections but that “no-one imagined the worst-case scenario we seem to be having now.”

In one of the most brutal episodes of violence since the incumbent Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the December 27 poll - amid cries of fraud by the opposition and international concern about the vote tallying process – at least 30 people who had sought sanctuary in a church in the western town of Eldoret died after a mob set the building ablaze, according to reports from the BBC and AFP, among other news outlets.

AFP, which estimated the overall number of dead in the wake of the polls at 300, quoted one senior police official as saying the events around Eldoret and nearby areas “looked very much like ethnic cleansing.”
Around the area of Burnt Forest in Rift Valley Province, according to Gullet, some 20,000 to 30,000 people, predominantly from Kibaki’s Kikuyu ethnic group, were holed up in church and police premises. An official government statement carried by local media estimated that there are 73,500 displaced people countrywide.

Most of the displaced have no access to food, water, health services or shelter, he said.

Families flee to eastern Uganda

The main road heading west from Eldoret leads to Uganda. A Ugandan immigration official at the Malaba border post told IRIN that dozens of families, mostly Kikuyus, had entered Uganda on 31 December and 1 January. The official said she thought many others had left Kenya crossing unmanned points of the unfenced and porous frontier. Another source at Malaba said he had seen only one car crossing from Uganda to Kenya on 1 January.

Members of Uganda’s parliament from constituencies in the border area have appealed to the government in Kampala to send aid to the region to meet the needs of any further refugees.
Fuel in Uganda arrives through Kenya and many petrol stations in Kampala had run dry while prices in other parts of the country had doubled.

Vigilantes and no-go areas Of those still in Kenya, “a few hundred thousand will need [humanitarian] assistance for some time… many people who were food sufficient are becoming food dependent,” said Gullet.
Between Burnt Forest and Eldoret, 30km away, “around 30 checkpoints have been set up by vigilantes,” he said.

“If you are not of the right ethnic group, it’s no go,” explained the Red Cross official.

“People are being targeted and it is known which ethnic group is being targeted,” said Gullet. When asked to clarify, he said in the areas he visited, “it’s largely the Kikuyu ethnic group that’s being targeted.”
Gullet said that in some parts of the country even Red Cross workers, clearly identifiable as such by the emblem on their jackets, had also been challenged to declare their ethnicity.

The Red Cross video showed hundreds of people at Eldoret airport, which lies 20km from the town itself, who had been there “for the last few days, surrounded by 3,000 people from one ethnic group,” he added.

During the brief assessment flight, Gullet estimated he saw “hundreds” of homes and farms on fire.

Assistance and lack of access

“The people need assistance, but we cannot access them by road and we cannot airlift because the only viable aircraft are helicopters and they can only carry two tonnes,” he said, adding that the road blocks had led fuel supplies to run out in many towns.

Visiting Moi University Hospital in Eldoret, the Red Cross team saw many patients with gunshot wounds and others who had been injured by arrows. Several doctors who live in the town were unable to reach the hospital because of fears for their safety.

“The hospital is overwhelmed with the number of casualties. They have set up tents outside to shelter the less serious cases,” said Gullet.

Plea to leaders

He went on to issue a plea to Kenya’s political leaders to provide security to ensure humanitarian access and to lift stringent restrictions imposed on the news media just after Kibaki’s victory was declared on 30 December.

He also called on presidential candidate Raila Odinga, the opposition leader from the Luo ethnic group who insists he was cheated of election victory, “to speak out to the masses and say that this senseless killing is unacceptable.”

Prices of basic food have shot up in some areas and The Red Cross has been distributing food to people displaced from some of Nairobi's slums thanks in part to donations from citizens responding to the agency's public appeal.

Source: IRIN