Kenya humanitarian crisis deepens; violence over disputed election wanes

Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Kenyans reached out Tuesday to receive food handed out by the Kenyan Red Cross in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Kenya's president and his chief rival made key concessions to end the dispute over the country's elections, calling off protests and agreeing to talks. (Riccardo Gangale ~ Associated Press)

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Mary Wanjiru sat beside her baby's corpse for hours.

Nobody had a car to take her to the morgue. Nobody had money for a taxi. She called the police, but they never came.

"When I woke up this morning, he was dead," said Wanjiru, whose son Brian lived just 13 months and died of exposure overnight Tuesday. He was another victim of violence unleashed by a disputed presidential election that has killed at least 500 Kenyans.

He died on the outskirts of a Nairobi slum where Wanjiru and hundreds of others have set up camp near a military base after being driven from their homes in ethnic clashes last week.

Though the violence that erupted after the Dec. 27 election has waned in many areas, the humanitarian crisis is deepening for the poorest of the poor in Nairobi's slums and the country's rural highlands. People like Wanjiru, whose lives already were a daily struggle, now say they have no way to rebuild.

The death toll from a week of violence has reached nearly 500, according to the government, though the opposition put it closer to 1,000. Some 255,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

Wanjiru said her son had been ill with pneumonia weeks ago, but had recovered enough to be released from the hospital.

"He had been feeling better, but because we are sleeping outside, the disease kept up," she said, her face expressionless. "Because of the cold, and everything."

By afternoon, residents flagged down a Red Cross truck, and the agency's workers put Brian on a green stretcher and drove him to the morgue, with Wanjiru riding in the back.

Others in the area said they, too, were suffering after family members had been killed or attacked.

Across town in Kibera slum, more than 1,000 people who had lined up for Red Cross rations quickly thronged the agency's trucks, with several men clambering onto the vehicles and throwing food and clothes to the frenzied crowd.

In the western highlands, relief agencies had trouble moving food to victims in Eldoret, the scene of some of the worst violence, including the burning of a church housing hundreds of refugees. Dozens were killed.

Trucks have reached the halfway point of Nakuru on the way from Nairobi, but stopped to await police escorts because the drivers were afraid to go further on their own, said Christiane Berthiaume, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program.

Vigilantes have been manning makeshift roadblocks in the countryside but security forces slowly are dismantling them.

Moses Maina Mwangi, 48, has been taking refuge at a cathedral in Eldoret with his 10 children since Monday.

"All our houses were burnt down," he said. "We have committed no sins. We are not able to go home because there are no homes. ... As a Christian, I have forgiven (the attackers)."

The violence has marked some of the darkest times since Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963, with much of the fighting degenerating into riots pitting other tribes against President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu, long dominant in Kenyan politics and the economy.

The election returned Kibaki to power for another five-year term, with his opponent, Raila Odinga, coming in a close second.

But the top American envoy to Africa said this week the vote count at the heart of the dispute was tampered with and both sides could have been involved.

Kibaki named half his Cabinet on Tuesday, further angering the opposition which accused him of undermining mediation attempts for a power-sharing agreement that could end violence.

Salim Lone, a spokesman for Odinga's party, repeated the party's call for no demonstrations, saying it did not want to undermine African Union-mediated talks expected to begin Wednesday.

"We think that the announcement of the Cabinet was a slap in the face for all the effort that Kenyans and the international community is making to avoid the crisis," Lone said.

Earlier Tuesday, Odinga rejected an invitation from Kibaki for talks, calling it "public relations gimmickry" and charging the president with "trying to deflect attention from and undermine" international mediation.

One proposed solution has been for Kibaki and Odinga to share power. But the Cabinet members announced by Kibaki, among them his vice president, included no portfolios for members of Odinga's party.

Martha Karua, reappointed as justice minister Tuesday, said the opposition should take its complaints to the courts.

"I am certain they have no evidence upon which a credible court can nullify a Kibaki win," she said.

Diplomatic efforts continued. The chairman of the African Union, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, arrived on a mediation mission, and President Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered support to the AU effort.

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