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The lost children of Kenya’s political violence

Among the children laughing and shouting on the swing set at a Nairobi orphanage is a boy who was pulled from his bed by men with machetes and an 11-year-old girl who assumes her mother was burned alive.
Image: Orphans children sleep on a single bed
Orphans children sleep on a single bed at the SOS Children's Village Nairobi in Nairobi, Kenya, on Friday. Orphanages in Nairobi have taken in dozens of children who had to flee their homes amid post election violence, as relief workers try to find their parents. Bernat Armangue / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Among the children laughing and shouting on the swing set at a Nairobi orphanage is a boy who was pulled from his bed by men with machetes and an 11-year-old girl who assumes her mother was burned alive.

They play as they wait for aid workers to bring news of their parents, to tell them if they're orphans or not.

Waves of attacks since Kenya's disputed Dec. 27 presidential vote have uprooted more than a half million people and left more than 1,000 dead.

In the chaos, many parents and children lost track of each other: Kenya's Red Cross says it knows of at least 500 youngsters who were separated from their families, and many more probably went unreported.

With violence ebbing, more than 300 children have been reunited with their parents. But others remain adrift, stuck in orphanages or in camps for those forced from their homes.

Weeks after the last serious violence in the capital, more than 40 children are still waiting in Nairobi's orphanages while workers search for relatives, according to government figures. There is no nationwide count.

The slow process of reuniting families illustrates the difficulties Kenya faces in recovering from a crisis that began with the flawed presidential election and grew into ethnic bloodletting that has torn apart a society once considered among Africa's most stable. Even with promises of an imminent deal, a return to normalcy is far off.

Severed from loved ones
Some of the children still waiting for their families come from neighborhoods that were torched, leaving no homes to return to and no neighbors to ask for leads on where parents might be. Other youngsters ended up in the capital after strangers helped them flee fighting in distant towns and villages.

Christine Mukami, 11, was outside playing in Nairobi's Mathare slum about four weeks ago when she looked over and saw her house being swallowed by flames. Then she saw other houses on fire. Then she ran.

Leaning against a seesaw at a Nairobi orphanage, Christine said she doesn't expect her mother to come for her. She's sure she died in the fire.

Red Cross volunteers search for relatives by carrying photos of children. They post notices on billboards at refugee camps and in newspapers. Sometimes the only lead they have is an offhand remark: "The mechanic across the street from the church might have seen him."

And yet, there have been many successes.

Some make it back
On Saturday, 16-year-old Rita Asiko and her younger brother, Jackson, returned to their house in an area torched and ransacked by groups of men in late January.

Wearing new jeans and T-shirts from the orphanage, they skipped across puddles and rocks between the closely packed shacks of Nairobi's Kibera slum toward their one-room, one-light-bulb house and their waiting aunt, who has been their guardian since their mother's death years ago.

Rita grinned as she waved to friends. She said she'd probably cook some ugali, a traditional dish of cornmeal, for her aunt that day.

"I was worried. I thought my house was burned down," Rita said. Both her house and her neighbors' escaped damage.

Her aunt was out of the city and her uncle wasn't home when men descended on Kibera, brandishing rocks and machetes and scattering Rita and Jackson's soccer game as they hunted for members of a rival ethnic group.

Rita grabbed her 10-year-old brother and fled. Eventually, the two were sent to an orphanage.

There, the system worked. Rita was old enough to provide details about her family and home. And her aunt had filed a missing persons report.

Other children are so young or in such shock that it can be hard to get information from them, said Nicholas Makutsa, head of the Kenya Red Cross' family tracking program.

"They are unable to sleep at night, and they are crying out. ... They don't know your motives and they may easily think you are coming to kill them," Makutsa said.

Esther Kiarie, a counselor who does art therapy with the youngest children, says they keep drawing houses and waiting vehicles — apparently to make an escape. Many recoil from the idea of going home.

A 6-year-old boy in one orphanage says he cannot remember where he lives. He only knows his mother's name and that she braids hair in a salon run by a woman he calls "Mama Dana." All the orphanage workers know is that he turned up at a nearby refugee camp.

In some ways, missing children have been easier to find than the adults. Children tend to be taken in by someone or turned over to officials. The Red Cross said it has located only about 100 of the approximately 1,000 adults who have been reported missing by relatives.

David Mwangi, 7, said he hasn't seen his parents since just after the election.

On that late December day, the boy was home in the western city of Nakuru when men forced their way into his house and started burning everything. His family is Kikuyu, the tribe of President Mwai Kibaki, whose members have clashed with ethnic groups that supported the opposition.

David ran out of the house and didn't go back. He slept in the street for a few days, then got on a bus for the 100-mile trip to Nairobi. He said he didn't pay; he doesn't remember anyone asking. He wandered around the capital until another child took him to the police, who sent him to an orphanage.

Thin-limbed in a school uniform of blue shorts and matching checkered shirt, David told his story with a wooden face. He sat quietly and didn't smile as he talked.

His parents are all right, he said. They weren't home when the men came. They had gone to visit his grandmother on the other side of town. So they must be all right, he said.