Life on the Ugandan-Kenyan border

Posted: January 8, 2008 in Blog

Early Sunday morning (so early that in my half-asleep stupor, I packed a pillow but not a crucial camera cord), I joined another reporter in heading to the Uganda-Kenya border to check out the refugee situation there. We got back late Monday night, having spent the two days interviewing refugees and local officials. The refugees are in a wide-range of conditions. Some are okay health-wise, others have deep wounds from pangas and machetes. Most have lost their homes and businesses in the violence. I have posted some pictures with this piece. A warning that a couple of them are fairly graphic. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but instead hope to give a clear picture of what it’s like on the ground. If you would rather not view pictures depicting the outcome of a panga attack please skip over those two photos.

Here in Uganda there is a widespread sense of disbelief over what is
happening in Kenya. Since the era of independence more than 40 years ago, Kenya has been the stable neighbour for not just Uganda but much of East Africa.

Uganda’s history has been pockmarked with coups, military leaders, civil wars and tribal clashes that have, at various times, sent Ugandan refugees fleeing into Kenya.

Today, thousands (the last report said 5,000 but it is higher now) of
Kenyan refugees have fled into eastern Uganda, seeking to escape the violence.

On our trip to the border, the conditions of those coming into the country revealed the extent of the violence in western Kenya.

Some had been hacked with pangas and machetes, and had
the deep, bone-revealing wounds to prove it. Others were limping or bandaged from having been stoned. Most I met at an impromptu refugee camp had lost their homes and businesses.

And that’s what makes this class of refugees unique. Today they are
typical refugees, with little more than the clothes on their backs.
But barely a week ago most of them owned homes and businesses.

“Two weeks ago we were business people, but today we are typical
refugees. We have nothing,” one refugee, who owned a dairy a week ago, told me. He said his house and business have since been destroyed.

“They even took my clothes,” he said.

Here is that man, Danson Nganga, with his three-day old son, Isaac, who is wife gave birth to after the couple arrived at the refugee camp.

Refugee with newborn baby
This status as business owners is why, they say, they were targeted.
In western Kenya, the Kikuyu form the bulk of the business-owning
class. They moved west from central Kenya, into lands dominated those from the Teso and Luo tribes. The Kikuyu owned businesses, ran hotels and were generally better off than the rest of the western population.

Over the years this led to a previously-hidden hostility that exploded when last month’s election results were announced.

Ugandans have so far been welcoming to the refugees. Many of the
relief workers in eastern Uganda say they are happy to return the
hospitality that, over the years, Kenyans often offered to fleeing

“Ugandans have been refugees and it was Kenya who sheltered us,” said one Ugandan relief worker I spoke with. “So when Kenyans began coming across it was a form of payback.”

Some of the refugees at the camp in Malaba, where we were, displayed injuries from the violence they fled. One, named Stephen, had a piece of gauze held on his arm by a short length of rope. He slid the gauze down his arm to reveal a gash so deep that the bone was clearly visible.

Here is Stephen. These are the two pictures that are fairly graphic, so skip them if necessary:


Close-up of injury

While we were at the camp, a young woman arrived from the border with a white shawl covering her shoulders. Upon removing the shawl, she revealed a gaping hole sustained in a machete attack. The attack had happened a week ago and she had spent the week fleeing violence. Upon arriving at the camp, she received medical attention for the first time since being injured.

Here in the capital, Kampala, people are far enough away from the
border that they rely on media reports for updates on the situation.
But the election and violent aftermath have had a tangible effect on
the region.

I mentioned in the last post that I returned to Uganda on Jan. 2 to find that gas prices had quadrupled to Shs 10,000 a litre (equivalent of about $6 a litre). Luckily, gas prices have now gone down to 3,500-4,000 shillings a litre, though many stations are still dry. But many drivers have still left their vehicles at home, unable to afford the cost of driving and unwilling to spend hours waiting in line for fuel.

When the worst of the shortage hit, Uganda worked out an agreement with Kenya that Kenya would provide armed guards to escort supply trucks to the border so they could reach Uganda. Once the crisis has passed, many here hope leaders will have learned a lesson that a more reliable system of supply, and reserves, needs to be established to avoid this from happening again.

Back on the border, there is hope that things will get better. The two Kenyan leaders have agreed to meet and most we spoke with said a deal between the two would end the violence. Despite all they’ve been through in the last couple weeks, everyone we spoke with said they would be able to return home when peace is established. They also said they would not hold grudges against those who attacked them even though many of them are neighbours. They do, however, face the problem of having to start from scratch with no capital. Maybe, once this is all over, the government will provide aid to help them re-start. The violence did, after all, begin because of political wrangling.


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