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Kenya: Notes from Nairobi

Kenyan slums in flames.

Ethnic violence following the Kenyan elections has left half a million people in need of humanitarian aid.

Editor's Note: The post-election ethnic violence between the majority Kikuyu and minority Luo that exploded in Kenya this week, leaving some 300 dead, has subsided for the moment. But the country remains tense, especially in Nairobi's slums.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has met separately with President Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and his rival candidate, Raila Odinga, a Luo, who accuses the government of stealing the election. Tutu urged the politicians "to get their act together" and come to the bargaining table, before Kenya, which is considered a relatively stable and prosperous country, unravels.

A UN employee sent us this message.

Here in Nairobi, the UN's headquarters in Africa has been closed down for the past week. This has affected the major humanitarian pipelines in this region: Kenya serves the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Darfur and Somalia where millions depend on food and UN aid that comes in from Kenya by road and air.

The tension is very tangible and the UN has declared it a Phase II emergency. This means we are no longer allowed to come to work. It also means we cannot go around at night, placing us effectively under an unofficial curfew.

For those of us in the leafy suburbs who live and work at the well-protected and well-supplied UN complex, life carries on. But the supermarkets are running empty, and petrol stations are no longer functioning because the suppliers do not want their delivery trucks to get hijacked.

The election has simply brought out the underlying tribal tensions symbolized by the two big men -- Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki.

Unlike Putin's more sophisticated election victory in Russia, here the election has simply brought out the underlying tribal tensions symbolized by the two big men -- Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, and Mwai Kibaki, the president.

The UN fears that more than half a million people now need humanitarian assistance; hundreds have been killed in ethnic violence, and Africa's biggest slum, Kibera -- the sprawling mess of mud, human waste and shacks home to nearly one million people in a space the size of a golf course -- has been ripped apart.

Kibera lies on the edge of the city. Nobody knows how many have been killed, how many have fled and how many need to be rescued. My gardener came in today from Kibera with his TV set for safe keeping, as have three of the folk who guard my property. Two of them have brought their fridges as well.

"No grievance and no cause is worth the innocent blood of Kenyan children. The orgies of looting undermine the moral basis of the politicians' cause," says the independent daily, the Nation in a front-page story this week. Alongside mugshots of the two big men, it says, "Our beloved country, the Republic of Kenya, is a burnt out smoldering ruin. The economy is at a virtual standstill and the armies of destruction on the march in the Rift Valley and other places. In the midst of this, leaders -- who are the direct cause of this
catastrophe -- are issuing half-hearted calls for peace from the comfort of their hotels and walled homes in Nairobi, whence they are conveyed in bullet-proof limousines."

Nobody knows how many have been killed, how many have fled and how many need to be rescued.

In this country, less than 10 percent of people have access to computers, but 90 percent have cellphones or are able to share them. In fact, the cellphones we can buy here are more modern than anything you can find outside Southeast Asia. Earlier this week, everyone in the country received these two messages from the government number 999: First, "The Government of Kenya advises that the sending of hate messages inciting violence is an offence that could result in prosecution."

I remember the Radio Mille Collines broadcasts in Rwanda a decade ago inciting Hutus to kill Tutsis, so this makes me shudder. Maybe the government here reserves the right of hate broadcasts for themselves.

The second text message everyone received today reads: "The Government of Kenya advises you not to take part in any unlawful assembly that may result in violence."

[Heavily-armed police blocked thousands of marchers from holding an opposition rally yesterday in a downtown Nairobi park.]

And just a week ago, people voted in peace, with hope of a change for the better.

Archbishop Tutu has arrived to try to mediate. Bless him, I just hope he succeeds.

Roman Rollnick is a former journalist who now works for the United Nations based in Nairobi, Kenya.

REACTIONS

(anonymous)
The New York Times, Jan. 5, ran a story by Joshua Robinson about the ethnic violence in Kenya threatening the famous long-distance runners of the highlands in the western region of the country, including Lornah Kiplagat, who FRONTLINE/World profiled in 2004 in a story about her camp for women runners.Kiplagat is training for a Jan. 18 marathon in Dubai at her high altitude camp close to the city of Eldoret, scene of some of the worst ethnic clashes in the past week. She is alright but 15 international athletes were evacuated from the training camp."Top Runners Are Caught In Kenya's Rising Violence"
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/05/sports/othersports/05run.html"Run, Lornah, Run"
http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/kenya/

- nairobi, kenya
An update to your story (January 4) from the UN in Kenya...
Kenyan security forces for a second day thwarted attempts to hold a rally in central Nairobi that the opposition described as peaceful. The city was subjected to running battles between protesters and security forces. In response to the violence in Kenya over recent days, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is increasing its support to the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) by dispatching additional relief supplies and staff. Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed or injured in the clashes, while thousands have been forced to flee their homes.The Secretary-General of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) has called for a re-run of the elections, ditching the previously held hard-line position which called for the President to "accept he lost and step down". President Mwai Kibaki was reported to have responded by stating that he was not, in principal, opposed to a re-run.In addition, South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, in the country on a mediation mission, met with President Kibaki today and reported that he (Kibaki) was ready for a coalition government if the opposition accepted his terms - the cessation of violence and lowering of the political temperatures sufficient for constructive and productive engagement.