January 28, 2008 / 12:07 AM / in 10 years

Kenya's reluctant refugees find sympathetic haven

MULANDA, Uganda (Reuters) - Kenya's election months were good times for teenage budding musician Robert Kinganga -- he was given a fistful of money, a microphone and a big crowd to entertain.

The 17-year-old, who prefers to be called King G, wrote lyrics extolling incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and then sang them to hip hop beats, winning votes for the president and local fame for himself in Busia, western Kenya.

"But now I can't go back there," he says from his new home in Mulanda refugee camp in eastern Uganda, where at least 6,000 Kenyans, mostly from Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe, fled to escape post-election violence.

"I am a wanted man. The Luos and the (opposition) ODM, they will get me," he added. "I am now well known and they say that I am the one who made Kibaki win in that area."

Kinganga's tale is a common one amongst the mostly Kikuyu Kenyans who had been living in Luo-dominated southwestern Kenya.

As soon as Kibaki was declared winner of the controversial December 27 poll, Luo youths went on the rampage, torching Kikuyu homes and businesses and beating those they could.

"I fled and I am safe but now all I have are these clothes and this," he said, pointing to a large scar on his right arm.

WARM WELCOME

Post-election violence in Kenya has killed about 700 people and forced a quarter of a million more from their homes, stripping the east African country of its reputation as a democratic nation with a thriving economy.

Despite mediation attempts and handshakes between Kibaki and Raila Odinga -- his Luo opponent who has rejected the elections which international observers say were flawed -- the violence continues in Kenya.

Tit-for-tat ethnic killings take place on a daily basis and, say some observers, are being orchestrated by some politicians and elders.

With the humanitarian crisis continuing, aid workers in Uganda are trying to move the refugees away from the border to the camp at Mulanda, where locals say they understand their plight and make them as welcome as limited resources allow.

"We have a common understanding and sympathize with their situation," said Frederick Olweny, a governor of an abandoned school that now hosts the refugee camp.

"When Idi Amin overthrew Milton Obote (in Uganda) I went into exile in Kenya. We were welcomed with open arms and now we are returning the favor," he said.

Ugandans flooded into Kenya during the 1980s and 1990s, fleeing the abuses of the security forces in Amin's regime, which is reported to have killed more than 300,000 people.

"We are even giving up our farming land for them," Olweny said, pointing to a line of bright white U.N. tents perched on land that looks like it was recently being cultivated.

As much as they fear the violence back home, the Kenyans make reluctant refugees. Mostly from the business-orientated Kikuyu tribe, they say they are not used to sitting around holding ration cards and waiting for the next food distribution.

"I'm sitting here idle in the camp. I'm feeling bad as I am used to working," said Francis Wahenya, a surveyor who left his job on a road construction project when his and his sister's houses were torched.

"I have my CV so tell me if there are any projects here," he appealed. "I don't understand all this. I'm just a professional and have no link to this politics."

KEEP AN EYE ON HOME

According to the United Nations, just over 1,000 of the at least 6,000 Kenyans in Uganda have actually agreed to go to the camp at Mulanda, despite the U.N. and the government saying only those who went there would receive any assistance.

Some fear the local Ugandan tribe is too closely linked to Luos across the border. There have been accusations of attempted poisoning of food rations.

Others say they will be too isolated and lack business opportunities in the bush, so they have hired rooms in Ugandan towns like Busia, which spans the two countries' border.

"They are hesitating to come here," admits Mohammed Godboudin, a field officer for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

"Some want to be near the border. They have property or they want to be able to cross or monitor the situation and see if it improves and they can go back."

Ironically, should the crisis continue, the Kenyans will be moved into more permanent camps previously occupied by Sudanese refugees who have since returned home after a Kenya-backed resolution of their conflict.

The refugees say they are closely following the diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis, as well as the killings. Whatever happens, the wounds of the violence are deep and will take a long time to heal.

"I would go back if there was peace but not to the place I was," explains Wahenya, the surveyor. "I would ask the government to resettle us somewhere else. It would be difficult for me to go back to my neighbor who harmed me like this."

Editing by Daniel Wallis and Richard Balmforth

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