Inside Story

The mobiliser

The demise of a refugee camp might be no tragedy, but what about the death of a town? Xan Rice visits Kakuma, where many of Australia’s Sudanese refugees spent years sheltering from conflict.

Xan Rice 29 October 2008 4751 words

Philip Ngor Bol, a “mobiliser” for the refugee repatriation program in Kakuma, talks to fellow refugee Simon Kong Thoat about plans to go back to Sudan. Xan Rice

PHILIP Ngor Bol walked to Kenya. The year was 1996, just past the mid-point of the two-decade war in Southern Sudan. Bol was fourteen years old. He was in a group of thirty people, mostly young boys and girls. They had all fled villages in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state after coming under attack from Arab militias. Mostly they walked at night to avoid being seen by the enemy. They ate mangoes and other wild fruit. The 1000-kilometre journey took three months.

From the Kenyan border Bol’s group was taken to Kakuma, a fast-growing refugee camp about 100 kilometres south. Bol was enrolled in school for the first time. The pain of being without his family – his mother Amel Piol, his brother Bol Bol and sister Athoi Bol, from whom he had become separated during the raid on his village – faded over time. (His father, Bol Deng, a herdsman, had died in earlier attack.) Bol learned to cope with drudgery of refugee life. Though he was free to leave the camp during the day – even to furtively visit other Kenyan towns, as some of his fellow asylum seekers did for a few nights at a time – he imposed his own boundaries.

“Why would I go anywhere if I had no mission?” Bol, who is now 26, told me one recent afternoon.

After a decade in Kakuma Bol found a mission, one that began on his doorstep. It would eventually take him all over the camp, which was then home to more than 90,000 refugees, the bulk of them Sudanese, living in small mudbrick huts spread out over 36 square kilometres. To make the job easier, Bol was given a brand-new bicycle, a heavy, dark-green Chinese-made “Phoenix” single-speed machine.

He had recently taken a course in theology, and though he approached his new job with a preacher’s conviction he was not spreading the word of God. His message was painted on a white triangular plate mounted on the bicycle frame. “Repatriation to South Sudan” the sign said on one side. “Let us go back home” on the other.

By now the war in Southern Sudan was over. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, which during the war had assumed responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese asylum seekers in Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, was keen to encourage them to think about returning. “Mobilisers” were recruited in the various camps to help speed the process. Bol, a short man with narrow eyes, round bulging cheekbones and a toothy smile, jumped at the chance.

Though he would be paid 4500 shillings (A$78) a month, money was not the main motivation. Rather, it was the chance to help Southern Sudan, the “New Sudan,” achieve what for decades seemed an impossible dream – independence. As part of the agreement to end the conflict, Southern Sudan, rich in oil and home to mainly African ethnic groups, had been granted autonomy. It would also have the chance to permanently split from the Arab-dominated north in a referendum scheduled for 2011.

“I tell people that instead of staying here in Kenya they should go home to prepare to vote,” Bol told me. “Then we can have an independent land, separate from the colonisers.” He was giving me a tour of Kakuma, and led the way on his Phoenix with me following behind, perched in an ungainly fashion on the back of a “boda-boda” bicycle taxi. After we passed through the crowded market area, dominated by Ethiopian and Somali refugees-cum-businessmen, the success of the repatriation program was immediately apparent. In between the clusters of refugee huts stood vast tracts of unoccupied land. It was clear that people had lived there until recently; some of the shelters were missing only their corrugated-iron roofs.

Until 2006, virtually the only refugees leaving Kakuma were those who had been resettled in the West, including Australia. But these empty plots that we were passing, Bol explained proudly, had been vacated by returning Sudanese. According to UNHCR figures, 14,877 asylum seekers have been assisted in going home to Southern Sudan by land or air as part of a voluntary repatriation scheme since December 2005. A further 21,366 refugees have returned spontaneously.

One of the biggest refugee camps in the world just a few years ago, Kakuma’s official population was down to 50,577 in August this year, including 27,608 Sudanese. By the end of 2009, the camp population should have slipped below 40,000, and Somalis rather than Sudanese will hold the majority in the camp.

It is an uplifting story, in many ways, of refugees returning to a land enjoying peace for the first time in a generation. But it is not as simple as it may at first appear. Many of the refugees going home are doing so only because their education opportunities – or those of their children – have been taken away.

Then there is the question of the people left behind in Kakuma – the asylum seekers from other countries but especially the vulnerable Turkana host community living in and around the town. For them, the presence of the Sudanese refugees has been a temporary lifeline, providing both an income and access to free schooling and healthcare in the camp. As the Sudanese refugees disappear, so are the Turkanas’ livelihoods. The eventual demise of the camp is no tragedy. But the death of a town may well be.

THE POSTCARD image of Kenya is usually one of lush highlands or savannah plains teeming with game. Applied to the entire country it is a false impression. More than 80 per cent of Kenya is dry pastoral land. In the north especially, conditions can be desert-like. In the Turkana districts, which funnel upwards between Uganda and Ethiopia towards the border with Sudan, dust storms and temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius are common. It is frontier country, replete with bandits, cattle rustlers and about 50,000 illegal weapons.

“This is a very remote area, Bwana,” Amos Ekaale, a 29-year-old Turkana boda-boda operator, told me one afternoon soon after I arrived in the region. “A normal man cannot survive here.”

The Turkana are famously tough, but they are also among the poorest of all the ethnic groups in Kenya. Marginalised by successive governments since independence, 95 per cent of them live below the poverty line, according to Oxfam. In recent decades increasingly unreliable rains have forced many Turkana to abandon their traditional pastoralism to congregate around rural villages or highway towns, seldom finding alternative livelihoods. One such settlement was the tiny trading post of Kakuma, which, by 1991, had about 7000 Turkana living nearby.

Within a year the population would more than triple. The new residents were refugees, 16,000 children who would come to be known as “The Lost Boys,” accompanied by 200 adults. They had originally made arduous journeys from Southern Sudan to Ethiopia to escape the conflict, only to be forced to return home when Ethiopia became engulfed its own war. Finally they had made their way into Kenya, to Kakuma, where a refugee camp was established for them. Thousands of Ethiopians escaping the turmoil in their country soon swelled the camp.

By the time Bol arrived in 1996 regional turmoil was making the camp even more mixed. Refugees from the Great Lakes region – Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo – were arriving. Thousands of Somalis fleeing anarchy in their homeland would soon boost the numbers further.

As Kakuma expanded so did the scale of the aid operation. Humanitarian organisations flocked to the camp. Kenyan and Somali businessmen followed. Kakuma was quickly transformed into a bustling, if scruffy, town. Cheap hotels and residential houses for rent sprang up. Barbershops, video halls, restaurants and hardware stores opened. Completing Kakuma’s new “ecosystem,” as one UN staffer described it to me, was the influx of tens of thousands of Turkana. (The UN estimates the town’s current non-refugee population to be about 65,000, mostly Turkanas.)

Some had been pushed into town by the decade-long series of droughts in northern Kenya that has decimated cattle herds. Others were lured by the promise of free healthcare, education and clean water; whenever the UN sets up a refugee camp, it tries to extend similar benefits to the host community. There was also a chance to make money. Some Turkana found jobs with aid agencies, others became traders. Turkana women, with their severe haircuts and necks hidden beneath strings of bright beads, moved into the camp to sell charcoal, firewood and meat and to buy surplus rations, such as flour. Poorer than many of the refugees, some of the women even acted as porters for the Somalis on food distribution days.

The relationship between the refugees and the Turkana was generally good, even charitable at times. “The Turkana do not get food rations like us,” Bol told me over lunch at Franco’s, a busy Ethiopian-run restaurant in the camp, whose décor included a Christmas tree (it was August) and a large poster of the singer Jennifer Lopez in knee-high boots. “So if we saw they were suffering, we would give them some of our food.”

For the young Turkana men the preferred work option was boda-boda taxis. Ekaale, whose bicycle seat amounted to a blue beanie stretched over the metal springs, said that for a long time his daily takings had been sufficient to feed and clothe his wife and two young children. The refugees were his main customers; the Sudanese in particular.

“We made our money from them,” he said. “But now that they are leaving we are performing poorly.”

THE NINTH of January 2005 was a day of celebration in Kakuma, and the day that the town’s delicate ecosystem began to crack. In a rundown football stadium on the edge of downtown Nairobi, nearly 1000 kilometres and two days’ drive away, Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir signed a peace deal with John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, to end the war. About two million people had died as a result of the conflict. What little infrastructure there had been in Southern Sudan was almost completely destroyed. The region was, and still is, one of the most undeveloped in the world.

In December that year, the voluntary repatriation program from Kakuma to Southern Sudan was launched. By the time Bol was recruited as a mobiliser a year later, about 7,600 Sudanese had gone home, most of them spontaneously. The number might have seemed impressive, so soon after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed. But it was not the true picture – in fact the net number of Sudanese in the camp had increased since the deal. There were 8198 new arrivals at Kakuma from Southern Sudan in 2005, and a further 4234 in 2006. (Most had left Sudan due to the extreme poverty rather than persecution, according to the UNHCR, but their arrival was hardly likely to boost the morale of those refugees thinking of returning. Aware of this, the UN closed its refugee transit centre at the Sudan–Kenya border, and the flow of new arrivals soon slowed.)

Throughout the the camp it was clear that the Government of Southern Sudan had made a strong effort to encourage its people to come home. A giant signboard detailing the government’s organisational structure had been erected along the main road. A poster on the noticeboard of the Lutheran World Federation, the main aid organisation working in Kakuma, carried a message left by Massimino Alam, the commissioner of Torit Country in Sudan, following a visit to the camp.

“I would like to invite my fellow South Sudanese brothers and sisters to come home,” Alam wrote. “Peace has returned and conditions are favourable for development. Although schools and hospitals are still few, plans to increase the number are already underway, but we cannot implement them without you. There are now more than 10,000 refugees that have returned. I am calling on those who remained behind to come home. You are the future. Come and let us build our country together.”

But the decision over repatriation was not just Southern Sudan’s. The UNHCR, which had taken the responsibility for Kakuma since the camp’s inception and was closely monitoring the situation in Southern Sudan from the ground, also had an input. So did Kenya, the final member of the Tripartite Commission. After years of taking little interest in looking after asylum seekers, other than enforcing an encampment policy preventing local integration, the Kenyan government had created a Department for Refugee Affairs in 2006, and had appointed a camp manager, William Lenaremo, to Kakuma.

I arranged to meet him one morning. His office was next to the airstrip, a half an hour walk from the camp itself. Grey clouds dipped towards the rust-coloured hills in the distance. It had rained; water painted a caramel stripe down one side of the otherwise dry bed of the Tarach River, which runs alongside the camp. Groups of Turkana men wearing their customary “Shuka” wraps squatted on tiny hand-carved stools.

A long line of refugees stood waiting outside Lenaremo’s office. He spotted me through the window and beckoned me inside. I asked him how the repatriation process was going. Up to 20,000 more Sudanese could return in the next twelve months, he said – a higher figure than the UN expects. “After the CPA” – the Comprehensive Peace Agreement – “refugees have seen a positive future in their lives,” he added by way of explanation.

Still, a tentative peace alone was not enough to encourage people to return in large numbers. They needed a push. And so the Tripartite Commission agreed that the best way forward was to take away the one thing that Sudanese most valued about being in Kakuma – schooling. “The Sudanese know that education is the key to everything,” Lenaremo said. “That’s the main reason that many of them were reluctant to go back. The same facilities don’t exist in Sudan.”

Last year it was announced that from 1 January 2008 a new education policy would apply for Sudanese refugees in Kakuma. Any pupil over the age of eighteen would be excluded from primary school, unless they were going into the final year. No Sudanese would be admitted to first year of secondary school, while only the top 30 pupils in the second year would be allowed to progress. The pre-school intake was also closed.

The effect on repatriation was dramatic. Aware of the impending changes to the education rules, more than 19,000 Sudanese returned home from Kakuma in 2007, up from 7500 the year before. This year primary and secondary school enrolment in Kakuma dropped by more than 8000 students. Seven schools were closed.

That afternoon, Bol took me to see some young men in the camp to ask their views on the new education policy. We met them in a dusty classroom at Turkwell Primary School. Above the blackboard hung a small Southern Sudan flag and a 2003 calendar featuring a painting of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement leader John Garang, who died in a mysterious helicopter accident shortly after the CPA.

Philip Yai, tall and skinny and 22, had spent the past decade in Kakuma. His younger brother and sister, their educational paths blocked, returned to Warrap State in Southern Sudan last year. Yai stayed – he is completing his final year of primary school – but at the end of the year he will reluctantly go home. (Like Bol, many of the refugees who arrived in Kakuma as teenagers had never been to school before, and so primary school students in their Twenties were common. I later met a 31-year-old man who had been in primary school until he was excluded this year.) “I can’t go to secondary school here, so I will go back home,” said Yai. “Life is a bit hard in Sudan. I will try to be a farmer. If you have nothing, you must be a farmer.”

That night, over dinner in the UNHCR compound, I talked to a woman who had arrived in Kakuma recently to work for an aid organisation assisting with the resettlement of refugees abroad. We discussed the phase-out of education opportunities for the Sudanese, and its impact on the number of returnees. “I’m not sure that it is voluntary repatriation,” she said. “It seems more forced.”

Later, when I returned to the Kenyan capital Nairobi, I recounted the conversation to Emmanuel Nyabera, the spokesman for the UNHCR in Kenya. He acknowledged that the educational system in Southern Sudan was limited in scope and quality. But he said that refugees were only encouraged to return to areas where schools had been set up. “The return is voluntary, but you have to create the sort of situation where the refugees can go back, otherwise they will never go back,” Nyabera told me.

He gave the example of some refugees in Kakuma who returned to Sudan during the school holidays, and came back to the camp when term began. “They are not in Kakuma because of insecurity, but because of education opportunities. That is a bit unfair. Asylum should not be driven by education; there must be a genuine fear of persecution.”

KENYA’S IMAGE as one of Africa’s most stable nations was shattered in late December 2007, following a shambolic, and almost certainly fraudulent, presidential election that saw President Mwai Kibaki declared the winner over opposition challenger Raila Odinga. Violent protests erupted in major towns across the country. More than a thousand lives were lost, mostly in targeted attacks that were initially aimed at people from Kibaki’s Kikuyu ethnic group and later at perceived supporters of Odinga.

Turkana was not caught up in the post-election chaos - a testament perhaps to its political marginalisation and its geographical isolation. (A joke going around in Nairobi in April, after a peace deal had been signed, was that the Turkana had just begun rioting at the news that Odinga had lost the election).

But the refugees in Kakuma have to deal with insecurity of a different sort. A month before my visit a Sudanese man and a Ugandan man had been killed in the camp. At least eight other refugees had been killed this year; the number of bandit attacks was over 30, according to the Lutheran World Federation. Though Kakuma has always tolerated a certain level of violence, few could remember it ever being this bad. One thing everything seemed to agree on was who was responsible: Turkana bandits, some of whom had been using the abandoned huts of departed refugees from which to launch nighttime raids.

The insecurity was straining relations between the refugees and the Turkana. Even Bol who, in his role as a community leader meets regularly with Turkana elders, admitted as much. “We do interact [with the Turkana] during the daytime. We are good friends. But at night it is different.”

Many of the refugees have now put up thorn-tree fences around their huts, with a gate to the compound. Some even employ guards from sunset to sunrise.

As I was strolling through the town one afternoon, a man driving a white Land Rover Defender saw me and pulled over. A white person wandering alone along the main street was clearly not a common sight. The driver was Eric Wanyonyi, and he was Kakuma’s District Officer. We agreed to meet the following afternoon.

Wanyonyi’s office was simple – no computer and no air-conditioning, despite the intense heat. His job was not. The district is wide, 500 kilometres from one side to the other, and served by bad roads. But the biggest headache was insecurity, particularly in Kakuma, where it is the government’s responsibility to protect the refugees. Though special police units had recently been deployed near the camp Wanyonyi believed the security situation would only get worse over time.

He saw a direct correlation between the surge in crime and the repatriation of the refugees. The Sudanese had always been the main source of income for the Turkana; those asylum seekers who had relatives who had resettled in the West and regularly remitted cash to them were especially “good at spending money,” Wanyonyi told me. “The local men who used to earn a living here are now organising into gangs. They are starting to steal from the stores in the town. Business has suddenly gone down. Some of the shops are likely to close. We are expecting an increase in highway robberies. Cattle rustling will also increase due to increased poverty.”

Compounding the problem was drought and a surge in food costs linked to the global increase in fuel and other commodity prices. The local Turkana elders had already told Wanyonyi of their concern that the scale-down of the camp would affect their people’s access to water, free education and healthcare. “The attitude of relying on donors is still very much there for the Turkana, who are not used to sustaining themselves,” said Wanyonyi. ‘The budget cuts at Kakuma camp must be gradual or the effect will be too big. We are very worried about what will happen.”

The humanitarian agencies are well aware of challenges caused by the shrinking camp. William Tembu, the project manager for the Lutheran World Federation, who has worked in Kakuma for eight years, said that money to maintain services, keeping both the remaining refugees and the Turkana content, was increasingly difficult to come by. “The donor community is set to leave Kakuma. It’s expensive to run the camp, and they have lost interest.”

The Lutheran World Federation is planning to exit Kakuma camp soon, though the decision has less to do with money than what is sees as the most important priorities. The agency’s focus will shift from the refugees to the Turkana. After 2009, Tembu said, the organisation might ask another organisation to take over the running of the camp.

The Kenyan government has also promised to do more for communities such as the Turkana. Earlier this year it created a Ministry for the Development of Northern Kenya and other Arid Lands, headed by former Oxfam manager and first-time MP Mohammed Ibrahim Elmi. He has pledged to help pastoralist communities cope with the challenges of climate change and underdevelopment while preserving their traditional lifestyles. But whether the government has the funds and the will to see this through is another matter.

EVEN IF all the remaining Sudanese refugees were to go home tomorrow, Kakuma would not close anytime soon. The nearly 4500 Ethiopian refugees, most of who have been there for more than a decade, have shown no inclination to return to a country facing a hunger crisis, where the government is struggling to contain an internal rebellion in the Ogaden region while also fighting a war in neighbouring Somalia. Meanwhile, the number of Somalis in Kakuma – now nearly 17,000 – is growing.

Near to where Bol lives, on a patch of recently vacated ground, was a group of simple wood-frame shelters covered in white plastic sheeting. They belonged to Somalis who had arrived in Kakuma earlier in the month. Bol knew the leader of the group, a man called Nuur Shegow, and we found him in the corner of the compound, sitting under a tree. A few dozen Somali women and children gathered around.

Shegow explained that they had all come to Kakuma the previous month from Dadaab, in Kenya’s northeast region. Consisting of three adjacent camps, Dadaab holds the world’s biggest concentration of refugees: more than 210,000 people, the vast majority of them Somalis. The camp was established in 1991 following the overthrow of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, which ushered in a period of chaos and anarchy that persists today.

Over the past eighteen months, a violent insurgency by an Islamist-led opposition against Somalia’s weak government and the occupying Ethiopian troops has triggered a fresh exodus to Kenya. In 2008 alone, 40,000 new refugees arrived in Dadaab, pushing a camp designed for a maximum of 90,000 people to bursting point. To ease some of the pressure, 1500 Somalis, including Shegow, made an arduous three-day journey from Dadaab to Kakuma in July. A further 3500 Somalis are expected to join them in the coming months.

Shegow said that most of the new arrivals from Dadaab had fled the Somali port city of Kismayo earlier this year. (A month after my visit to Kakuma, Islamist fighters took over control of Kismayo). I asked him if there was any prospect of Somalia stabilising in the near future. He, and everyone else gathered around, answered immediately, shaking their heads and wagging their fingers. No!

The swelling of the Somali contingent, coupled with the Sudanese repatriation, has already changed the dynamics in Kakuma. Tembu, of LWF, told me that the Somalis had taken over from the Sudanese as the de-facto leaders in the camp. “There is a feeling among the Sudanese that the camp ‘is no longer for us’,” he said.

During my short time in the camp I’d come to a similar conclusion. I tried to imagine how tough it must be to go back to one’s home country – a place many of the younger refugees would barely, if at all, remember – with little more than a few pots and pans, a mattress and a suitcase as the tools to start a new life after a decade or more away. It proved to be beyond my comprehension. Kakuma was a harsh environment but every resident was assured of food, a roof over their head and education for their children. Life in southern Sudan guaranteed none of these things. Yet the Sudanese refugees, even those worried about the lack of schools, appeared to accept their fate, some with resignation but far more with cautious hope. On the plane back to Nairobi I realised I’d come away from Kakuma, a place for so long associated with the misery of war and displacement, sharing this sense of measured optimism.

It may of course prove horribly misplaced. While the Comprehensive Peace Agreement has held so far, it remains extremely fragile. Southern Sudan is strengthening its army and, if the northern government in Khartoum breaks the promise on holding the referendum, a return to war will be little surprise. Recent deadly clashes in Abyei, an oil-rich area near the north–south border, raised alarms in humanitarian circles.

“We are looking at what happens in Abyei, and at relations between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Sudan’s government,” said Nyabera, the UNHCR spokesman. “If we have a feeling that things are not working well, we’ll have to make contingency plans.”

ON my final afternoon in Kakuma, I sat with Bol in a shaded area outside the UN’s administrative building. His “mobiliser” meeting had just finished, and we talked about his own prospects for going home. Since fleeing in 1996, he had had no news of his family. Whenever he learnt of other Kakuma refugees going home to his area in Northern Bahr el Ghazal he asked them to relay any news of his mother or siblings. The continued silence had filled him with a certain fatalism.

“I do still think of my family,” he told me. “God separated us, and maybe he will bring us together again.”

When Bol eventually goes back to Southern Sudan he will look for a job. If that is unsuccessful he might try to become a preacher. But that is all still some time away. For now the most important work he can imagine doing is here in the camp. Spreading the word about the benefits of repatriation. Building, in his own small way, a New Sudan.

“I will leave with the last group of Sudanese refugees,” Bol said. Then he walked towards his bicycle, and rode away. •

Postscript: By the end of 2009 the population of Kakuma, rising again due to mainly Somali arrivals, was 64,790.