Victims of political violence want more than handshake

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A woman reacting last August to the shooting of her son during protests in the Mathare district of Nairobi.

With their meeting last month, Kenya’s political arch rivals have been hailed for calming ethnic tensions in East Africa’s most vibrant democracy and ending a month-long stalemate that had brought the region’s biggest economy to a near halt.

But Benna Buluma, 48, just feels that she has been left further behind.

Her son Victor Okoth was killed by the police the day after Kenya’s presidential election in August — a vote whose contested result pushed the country to the brink of a democratic crisis and set off protests and violence that human rights groups said led to roughly 70 deaths at the hands of the police.

“This new marriage between the two men is not in good faith,” says Buluma, speaking of the rapprochement between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his long-time rival Raila Odinga, who met on Friday for the first time in more than half a year.

“It keeps the wound in my heart alive,” she says.

The men promised to work together for national unity, releasing a lengthy statement that has drawn international praise. But those who say they were victimized by police aggression during the protracted presidential election season say they feel forgotten and betrayed.

“People were sacrificed,” says Ernest Ngesa, 31, who lives in Kibera, a Nairobi neighbourhood. “You can’t just come and make us a promise that there will be changes. People have lost a lot.”

Ngesa knows what that loss means. The last time widespread violence followed a contested election, in 2007, more than 1,100 people were killed — including his 9-year-old daughter.

“I was fighting very hard this year for something more. We say we’ve come together in spite of our differences, but this is the second time we’re hurting.”

Kenyatta won the August presidential vote, but in a historic ruling the Supreme Court nullified the result, citing irregularities, and ordered a second election.

Odinga withdrew from the second vote, which was held in October, saying the process was unfair, and Kenyatta handily won re-election.

But Odinga’s public appearances continued to draw thousands of supporters, and the police responded with tear gas, water cannons and gunfire. Officials denied that live ammunition was used.

In January, when Odinga inaugurated himself as “the people’s president,” the government jailed opposition politicians, deported an opposition lawyer and took Kenya’s three biggest television stations off the air for 10 days. An economy already slowed by electoral uncertainty seemed to stall.

So when Odinga and Kenyatta met last Friday, after secret negotiations, much of the country heaved a sigh of relief.

A funeral in Bondo, Kenya, for three men killed during opposition protests last October.

Odinga abandoned his attacks on Kenyatta’s legitimacy as president, and Kenyatta acknowledged that he needed to engage the opposition. The two released a seven-page plan for national unity, focused on inclusivity, broad electoral reforms and efforts to fight corruption.

But neither the men nor their unity plan acknowledged the suffering of people like Buluma, whose family members were injured or killed in election-related violence.

“The country needs to have a dialogue, but the voice of the ordinary people hasn’t been raised,” says Rachael Mwikali of the National Coalition of Grassroots Human Rights Defenders. “Sometimes, I feel when they’re calling for reconciliation, it’s only about their interests. And these are two men who are supposed to be looking after the country.”

Because neither leader acknowledged the deaths caused by the political fight, Buluma said, the healing is much harder. And her family has lost so much.

After Buluma’s son Victor died, she and her surviving son pooled their day-labourers’ wages — he was a driver, she washes clothes — so they could bribe Nairobi’s city morgue to keep Victor’s body in good condition until the family could afford to bury him in their ancestral home, in western Kenya.

Her surviving son soon lost his job, and now Buluma’s Sh200 in daily wages keeps her family — including Victor’s widow and 2-year-old daughter — sheltered but not always fed.

Their neighbour, whose husband was also shot by the police, couldn’t keep up with the Sh2,500 monthly rent and was evicted, Buluma says. No one knows what has happened to her.

Senior government and police officials have consistently characterized those killed or wounded by the police during the unrest as criminals. Charles Owino, a spokesman for the National Police Service, said in an interview that opposition gatherings styled as democratic protests often involved looting and lawbreaking.

But local and international human rights groups documented dozens of cases of police violence, including sexual violence. Human Rights Watch released a report in December describing “widespread sexual violence” by uniformed men during the election period.

Owino declined to respond to victim testimony and video evidence suggesting that some police officers used force against nonviolent people, saying, “We will wait for the court to make those decisions.”

Anna Anyango Agalo doesn’t need a court to tell her what happened. “I saw it with my own eyes,” she says defiantly, gesturing to the space in her home in Mathare, an informal settlement in Nairobi, where she said she found the police beating her son, Chrisphine Owino, and his best friend, Silas Lebo, both 17.

Witnesses say the police went house to house in Mathare, where Odinga enjoys strong support, smashing in doors and terrorizing anyone they found. Video evidence supports their accounts.

Agalo says she demanded an explanation from the officers who beat her son and his friend.

“Did you vote?” she remembered an officer asking her in reply.

She said yes.

“And now you people are saying your votes have been stolen,” she remembers him saying. “That is why we are here.”

Agalo’s son survived but failed to speak for months afterward and remains affected by the physical and psychological trauma. The hardest thing for him, she says, was losing his best friend: Lebo died of his injuries.

Agalo resents the government’s characterisation of the boys as criminals.

“The kids were not out on the street protesting. They were not even out there watching what was going on. They were just inside our home, studying. The president is the one who told us to go home after casting our vote, and we did. We were in our houses when this happened.”

She says reconciliation between Kenyatta and Odinga won’t mean anything to her unless the police explained their actions — and Kenyatta apologised.

“The president was brave and courageous enough to tell the national police they did good work in killing those who were thugs,” she says with angry sarcasm. “The president needs to come back here and ask our forgiveness.” ^ (NYT)

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