I am in the northern Rift Valley of Kenya. This is where much of the violence broke out last December and January following disputed national elections that unleashed long-simmering ethnic tensions across the country.
Based on what I’ve seen here the past few days, this region has clearly begun the slide into a second and potentially deadlier emergency.
During the conflict, about 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of others – many in the Rift Valley - were forced to flee their homes into displacement camps. In the months since, the rival political factions have worked toward creating a coalition for sharing power, which has brought some stability to the country. Now, those living in camps are being told to clear out, go back to their homes and begin their harvests in this fertile valley that is so dependent on farming.
The problem is, some 150,000 people either have no homes to return to – whole areas were scorched to the ground, including homes, churches, schools – or are afraid to return to areas where tribal animosities and resentments have not gone away.
So they are packing up and moving to what the Kenyan Red Cross calls “minor centers” and “resettlement” areas. New sites are sprouting like mushrooms – many with zero basic services. That means no water, no shelter, no sanitation or latrines, little available food, and no health care services. It is utter squalor. Diarrheal diseases are becoming commonplace. At night, the temperature can drop to the low 40s. Without blankets or enough clothing, children are suffering from upper respiratory infections. I watched children run around without shoes, playing amid burned-out buildings littered with broken glass. Their arms are covered in chiggers. They haven’t bathed in weeks. The potential for outbreaks is enormous.
The “emergency phase” of this crisis was supposed to be over. Many of the aid groups, including International Medical Corps, are about to run out of their funding and will be forced to pull up stakes. But anyone who looks at these sites and talks to those living in them knows this emergency is far from over. If these people stay where they are, their health is at great risk. If they return home (if they even have homes), violence could re-ignite.
I spoke to a woman named Rosanne, in Eldoret’s largest displacement camp, dubbed Showground, where International Medical Corps is providing primary and mental health care services to about 13,000 people. Rosanne’s arm was in a cast, she had a huge scar along the left side of her head, and a gaping black hole where her left eye used to be. She was attacked during the violence and her husband was killed. She has three children with her in the camp, but she has not been able to locate her fourth, a 16-year-old boy.
Rosanne and her children are being told they have to leave Showground soon. She angrily exclaims: “We cannot go home. We have nothing and it is not secure. How can we leave?” I ask her where she is going to go next, she just looks away and sighs.
We visited a small settlement near Burnt Forest, which became infamous during the conflict after a church was burned to the ground and 30 of those inside were killed.
At this settlement, just a couple of days ago, a few hundred people arrived and began erecting tents. Their only available water for drinking, cooking and cleaning was what they could hoist up from a deep well – the water inside was the color of milk chocolate. A little boy we saw wandering around had large, fresh gashes on his knee and stomach that had yet to be treated.
Seeing how desperate the conditions were, our program coordinator got on his cell and had one of our medical teams diverted from another camp to this site for at least a couple of hours to provide treatment. But this was just one of about 100 such remote sites where the population had left a camp with some services and relocated to an area with none. International Medical Corps and other relief groups are doing their best to reach these people – or create some sort of central point where they can go and get the help they need. But it’s frustrating and disheartening.
I have been asked many times how I avoid getting overwhelmed by the scope of the need. This is one of those times that tests me. We’re always trying to make the biggest impact, multiply our efforts, reach as many people as possible. In just one month in Eldoret and Kitale we saw more than 11,000 patients. And yet, we can’t always solve all the problems or help everyone we want. I remind myself that this is significant and certainly better than no help at all.