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11 August 2008

Picturing Kenya

The world has all but forgotten about the turmoil that engulfed Kenya in the wake of the 2007 electi

By Benjamin Chesterton

Click on an image below to view the audio slideshow

Peter Kariuki is a dead man walking.

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Since fleeing from the ethnic violence that followed last year’s Kenyan presidential election Peter has been repeatedly threatened, brutally beaten, hospitalised, had his tent set on fire (whilst asleep in it), kidnapped, interrogated and tortured.

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His first crime was to fall in love with and marry a woman from another tribe. His second has been to speak out for the rights of the estimated 600,000 Kenyans who were violently forced from their homes last year. He has paid a heavy price. The last time he was attacked one Kenyan national newspaper described his face as ‘looking like it has had battery acid poured over it’.

I first met Peter in March at Nakuru Showground camp in the Rift valley. The camp is one of hundreds hastily erected during the post election violence and is home to some fourteen thousand people.

Peter told me he had made his way to Nakuru after being hunted down by a death squad. He spent two terrifying days hiding down a bore hole before escaping during the night.

Soon after his arrival he was elected chair of the association of displaced people at Nakuru and since then has fought passionately for the rights of those in the camp. In a country described by a recent British ambassador as having less honest politicians than can be listed on the back of a postage stamp Peter stands out with his fierce integrity, youth and above all else fearlessness. He can also claim to have been voted in without rigging the vote.

After our first meeting he asked me to help him highlight the problems in the camp. Elation following the signing of a power sharing agreement in Kenya, negotiated by Kofi Annan, soon turned to despair as those in the camps realized they had been forgotten. Working through an NGO called INTERNEWS, who were supporting the local media to cover the humanitarian crisis, I arranged for Peter to travel to Nairobi and meet with over thirty radio presenters, ten of whom invited him to appear on their shows. During one live interview Peter closed by stating, “Kibaki and Odinga maybe sharing power but it is now time they come down to the camp and share in our pain.” Of course they didn’t but his comments made him a marked man. Nobody wanted the reality on the ground highlighted, not least the newly formed government who were busy convincing the rest of the world that in Kenya it’s business as usual.

The government’s promise to guarantee the safety of those who want to return home has turned out to be as hollow as their promise of justice for those killed during the violence. There has been increasing reports of attacks on returnees; some of whom have been killed. Many displaced people have been driven from the camps on false promises, finding themselves dumped in smaller, less visible transitory camps close to from where they had first fled. Few have been provided with adequate shelter, food, finance, security or basic medical care.

Medecins Sans Frontier alleged that in one camp people were being roughed up and forced to leave by the Kenyan army. At Nakuru I witnessed fourteen thousand people go three days without water after the supply was cut. The Kenyan Red Cross, who are managing the camp, admitted that large numbers of young people had not received food for nearly a month leaving many young girls with little choice but to turn to prostitution to feed themselves. Donations intended for the camp have been siphoned off, making their way into the local community. Everywhere you look someone is screwing the displaced people but few have dared speak out for them, except for Peter and a few brave people like him.

The audio slideshows published here on reflect the raw reality of the situation in Kenya, told by those most affected.

Peter hauntingly tells his story in Praying for the rain not to come, whilst the second slideshow, Enough documents the extraordinary funeral of a young boy run over in Nakuru whilst collecting firewood; an event that has become symbolic of the suffering of those in the camp and those in the many other similar camps still in existence in Kenya.

Just before leaving Kenya I offered Peter a small amount of money that would enable him to be reunited with his family and start a new life. I made him promise that he would leave the camp. During his separation from his wife she had given birth to son whom he named Emmanuel Peace by mobile telephone.

It was time that he put his family first and I was convinced that sooner or later he would be killed. For once Peter broke a promise. He took the money but returned to the camp. Despite telling me that he felt suicidal and despite now having the means to move on he refused to abandon those who had put their faith in him and they refused to let him go. Two weeks later he was kidnapped. He was taken to a forest, subjected to torture and interrogated about his role in the camp. Though his kidnappers did not reveal their identity he believes they were members of the security forces. Sadly the peaceful protest that erupted following his kidnap resulted in the police shooting dead two of the protesters.

Peter continues to risk his life by speaking out for those who have no means to speak for themselves. The last I heard he was still alive, just.

You can contact the writer by clicking here: Benjamin Chesterton