04:10 am
26 October 2016

Psychological Wounds Yet To Heal For Victims of Kenya’s Election Violence

By Sitawa Wafula

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta held a ceremony last weekend to celebrate the International Criminal Court (ICC) abandoning its case against his deputy William Ruto (and journalist Joshua Arap Sang) for orchestrating the violence after their disputed election of 2007. The prosecutor dropped similar charges against Kenyatta himself two years ago, alleging that witnesses had been intimidated into changing their testimony.

The ceremony was held in Nakuru in the Rift Valley, a symbolic choice in that it was one of the centres of the post-election violence. The venue, Afraha Stadium, was where nearly 30 000 people took shelter at the height of the bloodshed. The deliberate, ethnic-based violence that followed the election saw neighbour turn against neighbour, children separated from their parents, women raped and men castrated, homes burnt and churches, where people sought shelter, set ablaze with them inside. At least 350 000 people were displaced from their homes and 1 200 were killed.

The weekend’s triumphant celebration by the same political leaders who had been accused of being at the centre of events was seen by many Kenyans as a cruel mockery to the victims, most of who are still struggling to cope with the repercussions of the violence. Kenyans showed their disgust by trending on Twitter with #whataboutthevictims and #wearenotoneafraha.

Most of the victims and internally displaced people (IDPs) have now been physically resettled, either through government projects or by building their own make-shift homes, but very few of them have been able to settle their minds. There was little psychological first aid for them when the violence began and many spent months living with fear and anxiety with no support. Some victims hoped that a process of justice through the ICC might help to bring some of the closure that they craved. But after eight years of waiting, their hope was killed off with the abandonment of the ICC case.

The politicians are hoping their ceremony marks the end of the process for them, but how will the victims find resolution? President Kenyatta said during the celebrations that Kenya had closed the ICC chapter and if there are any issues left remaining then the solutions would be home-grown. Many are highly sceptical that this will happen given that Kenya had the option of setting up a local tribunal at the time but chose not to. Aside from the four men who have had their cases dropped by the ICC there are thousands of other suspected perpetrators living in the community. This makes it impossible for some IDPs to return to their previous homes. There are also high levels of mistrust in the local judicial system and its ability to deliver justice and the politicians now have their minds set on campaigning for the 2017 elections.

Meanwhile the victims are left to cope with the trauma from the violence and, with no justice in sight, we face a breeding ground for severe mental health problems. Kenyan society has major questions to answer. How can we heal the psychological trauma of children who witnessed their parents being killed and houses burnt because they were from the “wrong tribe”? How will we compensate for the psychological effects of those who had a body part chopped off by a neighbour? And ultimately how will we as a society be affected by neglecting this deep psychological wound?

It is always difficult for countries that have been traumatised by violence to find the path to reconciliation and lasting peace. After the 1994 genocide in nearby Rwanda there was a formal court process but the government also helped ease the trauma by setting up small courts in villages where people were able to air their stories or admit to how they may have contributed to the genocide. If feelings and emotions are stored up it can lead either to an implosion, such as depression and other mental-health conditions, or explosion like the urge for revenge or anger-management issues.

The government provided some psychological support to some of the victims and IDPs through the Red Cross in refugee camps, but most of these were one-off visits as opposed to continued support. Psychological wounds from traumatic situations require ongoing support to heal completely. If Kenya continues down the path of largely ignoring the plight of the traumatised and IDPs then we will face the consequences in the future. The only way we can have something to celebrate is when the whole country acknowledges the events that took place in 2007 and 2008 and the long-standing impact on the victims. There is an urgent need to follow an example like Rwanda’s and provide a forum to talk about it honestly. We can only find closure when the individual healing for the victims is on the agenda along with physical resettlement, compensation and the continuing search for justice.

Sitawa Wafula is a Nairobi based mental-health activist and an Aspen New Voices Fellow 2016.