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Back from the brink

Kenya | The government's "grand coalition" settled the violence, but is it enough to make neighbors trust one another again?

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

NAIROBI, Kenya-Property destroyed. Homeowners displaced. Innocents killed. Food prices rising. Kenyans have experienced all of that, along with accusations of ethnic cleansing, in the four months following last December's general election. International media covered the loss of life and displacement of over 350,000 following accusations of vote-rigging, but since the signing of a peace accord between the leading political parties on Feb. 28, the world has moved on to other stories.

The peace accord by President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga created expectations of "a grand coalition" government. Tension rose and fell as the country waited six weeks for the announcement of a coalition cabinet. Those displaced by violence waited for assurances that it was safe to return home, and every delay in implementing the peace accord caused Kenyans to collectively hold their breath.

With last month's announcement of a 42-member cabinet-amid worries of rising food prices, drought, and possible famine in parts of the country-the government shifted its attention to the 140,000 homeless, landless, and jobless people living in makeshift camps throughout the country. Those who survived four months of burning houses, charred churches, and wounded or dead men and women are finding it hard to forget, but that's what the coalition government is asking Kenyans to do through a program called "Rudi Nyumbani," or "Return to your home."

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Party leaders believe that if they can reconcile, so should average Kenyans. "If Raila and I can cooperate, why would you keep isolating yourselves, instead of all marching in the same direction?" Kibaki told residents at one displaced camp. But one woman said her neighbor shot arrows at her during January's violence, set fire to her home, and stole her cattle: "How can I live next door to him while he is milking my cows?"

With little to do and less chance to voice their concerns, the displaced are restless. James Kamau, a "resident" at one of the largest camps outside Nairobi, complains, "At my house I sat in my chair but here I borrow benches from my neighbors. I sleep on the ground. And it is not because of any mistake I have done, it is because of them [Kibaki and Odinga]. Their problems have come and affected me."

Martha Waithera, an elderly women affected by four different clashes in the past 30 years, sounds hopeless as she says, "Did we make a mistake voting for them? If we had known we would be beaten, we wouldn't have voted."

Residents in the camp now have an added challenge-resettlement. On May 3, the government launched a program of resettlement that is not likely to sit well with many of the internally displaced. Caleb Ngaria, displaced from his home in Nakuru town and living at a camp there, puts it this way: "As long as they visit and talk with us, that will help bring people together. But if they tell us to go back, it's like they are just pushing people out. Where will they go? Many people lost their things when they ran away, and the people we used to work for now are our enemies or are afraid to hire us. Even if you get a house, you need things for the house and food too."

Many of the displaced worry about returning to their former homes and facing those who attacked them because of their ethnicity or politics. A single mother living in a camp with her two young children (who asked not to be named for fear of further violence) knows how hard it would be: "After seeing people cut and killed, I can't go back. If I go back, I'll always be thinking about the things I saw. I'd have to go someplace else." She and others in the camp hope the government will help them find new places to live.

Kenya has not fallen into ethnic and political chaos, but Kibaki and Odinga face an uphill climb as they attempt to recover peace, develop economic stability, and restore property rights.

-Sarah Clark is a writer living in Kenya

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