Healing the children

One of the greatest challenges following the post-election violence in Kenya is to restore the physical and mental wellbeing of 150,000 displaced children, many of whom have witnessed atrocities and lost contact, in many cases permanently, with their families, humanitarian workers told IRIN.
 
"The future of Kenya is very dark because the children we are bringing up, the things they saw, we don't know how those things are going to [affect] their lives," said James Riako, a volunteer counsellor with the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), working in a transit camp for displaced people in the grounds of St Stephen's Cathedral in Kisumu, the capital of Nyanza Province in western Kenya.
 
"The children are harbouring a lot. They were drawing pictures for us. One child said: ‘Somebody came and killed my parents when I was there. We were burnt and I am the only one who survived.’ Another one could not talk.
 
"They are harbouring a lot of anger, a lot of hatred, a lot of resentment and all their frustration. They know their people have been chased and that the other tribe is an enemy," he said.
 
"Some of them are very revengeful," agreed Rosemary Akoth Okomo, another counsellor. "If you ask them, 'if you happened to meet a Kikuyu, what will you do?', they will tell you, 'I can even kill that person'. They keep thinking of the way they lost their parents, the way they lost their property. It haunts them."
 
Evans Omondi, 13, a Luo who was displaced from Nakuru in Rift Valley Province when his house was burned down, said he did not want to see his former classmates, most of whom were Kikuyu, because "they might kill me".
 
Riako was adamant that displaced children needed counselling to cope with their ordeals. "If you just take them [to their relatives' homes], it will not help the nation. We need to draw out what is inside them. Then we make arrangements for following up with counselling so that we can get these things out of their minds," he said.
 
Pamela Sittoni, a spokeswoman for the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, agreed. "A comprehensive counselling package has to be developed. [We'll be] looking at how we can follow up with these children and provide the psycho-social support they need. That has to be a priority."

Abandoned
 
Aside from the psychological risks, many children separated from their parents are in physical danger.
 


Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
Sister Philomena, of the St Theresa's children orphanage, Kisumu

Kisumu resident Angeline Akayo found two boys, aged one and two, at the bus terminal as she was walking home from work one evening. "It seems the person [who brought them to Kisumu by bus] abandoned them there. I found street boys surrounding them. I tried to ask them where their parents were but they could not say. I am a mother myself and I sympathised with them. I decided to take them home with me for the night," she said.
 
The elder boy later told her they were from Naivasha, almost 300km away. Akayo took them to St Theresa's orphanage in Kisumu.
 
"It seems a man who was their neighbour saw their father killed and their mother taken to hospital. He knew they were Luos from Ahero so he put them on a bus to Kisumu," said Sister Philomena, who runs the orphanage.
 
She registered the children with the police and the children's department in the hope that their mother would look for them.
 
"The other day, the children's officers brought me two more abandoned children. They don't know whether the parents are dead or not. We expect more," said Sister Philomena.

At risk

Security lapses have allowed strangers to remove some children from the transit camp.
 
Kevin Otieno, 15, was taken by a woman looking for a domestic worker. Luckily, staff noticed Kevin was missing and the police managed to trace him. Kevin was the only member of his family to escape when their house in Naivasha was set on fire.
 
"There is a lady who came here today asking us to give her a child. She wants two children to adopt under five. We asked her, 'who told you children are being given away here?' Some people want to use the kids for business," said Teresa Agutu, one of the volunteers at the camp.
 
The KRCS was trying to trace the families of about 30 unaccompanied minors in Kisumu. Counsellors believe there are many more children without adult protection because not all minors passed through the transit camps in western Kenya after they arrived from other parts of the country.


Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
A victim of post-election violence recovering in hospital in Nyanza

"We have three children who have been staying at the [Moi Stadium] camp for almost three weeks now," said Irene Owuor, tracing assistant with the KRCS. "We are liaising with the children's department to find a place for the children to stay while we trace their people. They were born in Nairobi. All they know is they are Luos but they don't know from which area [their families originally came].
 
"The children's homes that we trust are run by the government because the other ones might have ulterior motives. The government does not promote private institutions because some are not genuine," explained Owuor.
 
The KRCS had passed 13 children on to the children's department, which placed them in a remand centre in Kisumu. Most of the other 46 children in the centre were awaiting trial for criminal offences.
 
"In Kisumu, we do not have a charitable children's institution owned by the government apart from this one, which is a remand home," said Kenneth Mbito, manager of the remand home.
 
"We keep them here although they are not supposed to be here. This is a temporary place of safety. It's not the best place to keep these children because it is a place for children who have been charged with criminal activities. Mixing them is not the best but we have no alternative," he said.
 
If the KRCS fails to trace the children's families, the children will be put under state protection. The children's department will then find alternative care for them, either in charitable children's institutions or by offering them up for adoption.
 
Children who are placed with family members still face challenges, particularly if the relatives are poor. Owuor said the success rate for tracing children's families was 30 to 40 percent.
 
"Most of them unfortunately are ending up in children's homes," she said.
 
"Kids who are born in the towns find it rough in the villages. But those are their closest relatives so we have no alternative but to leave them there," said Owuor.
 
"Our main aim is to get the child to be in a safe place and we assume the child is safe with real parents or close relatives. But that is not always the case; you find a relative taking a child and using the child for manual labour instead of taking good care of it.
  
UNICEF has a cash transfer programme to support poor families that take on extra orphans. "We are looking at whether the new situation calls for us to expand that programme," said Sittoni.
 
km/am/mw