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More than 300 Kenyan refugees return home from Uganda

More than 300 Kenyan refugees return home from Uganda

More than 300 Kenyan refugees return home from Uganda weeks after fleeing their homeland in the wake of the inter-ethnic violence earlier this year in Kenya.
13 May 2008
A warm family reunion after Kenyan returnees arrived from Uganda in the border town of Busia.

BUSIA, Kenya, May 13 (UNHCR) - More than 300 Kenyan refugees have returned home from Uganda weeks after fleeing their homeland in the wake of the inter-ethnic violence that followed last year's presidential election in Kenya.

Friends and relatives welcomed the returnees in emotional scenes on Friday at the border towns of Busia and Malaba. Tears flowed freely as three UNHCR-hired buses carrying 132 refugees arrived in Busia. They were among some 12,000 Kenyans who fled to Uganda to escape the post-poll violence, which left an estimated 350,000 people displaced and 1,200 dead.

A further 207 refugees crossed the border on the same day at Malaba. The returnees were expected to make their own way to their final destinations, be they in the two towns or further afield.

The returnees were the only Kenyans from a group of some 2,000 refugees at a transit site in the town of Mulanda who wanted to go back to Kenya. UNHCR transported the remaining refugees last week to the Kiryandongo settlement in Uganda.

Friday's repatriation movement from Uganda comes days after the start last week of an official resettlement operation for internally displaced people (IDPs), dubbed Operation Rudi Nyumbani (Return Home). The Kenyan government estimates that up to 65,000 displaced people have since returned home.

The returnees to Busia were excited to be heading home - a bustling border town teeming with hawkers selling a wide range of wares in the open-air market. Taxi bicycles, known as boda boda, clogged the streets, while trucks waited to cross the border with petrol and other vital goods for landlocked Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and for eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

By mid-morning Friday, word had spread in the dusty town that some of the Kenyan refugees in Uganda were returning home. Large crowds quickly formed around the police station in Busia, where the convoy eventually arrived around three in the afternoon.

Beth Wanjiru, aged 46, wept as she hugged her daughter Janet Wangui, who had remained in Busia when the violence broke out. "I am happy to come home because nowhere is better than home. I hope I will be able to rebuild my life and take care of my children," she said.

The shopkeeper will have to rebuild her business from scratch. Her small kiosk was torched by angry Busia residents from a rival ethnic group, who chased Wanjiru and others from her community into exile.

But on Friday, some members of the rival group turned up at the police station to welcome the returnees and insisted that they did not have any problems with those who had fled to Uganda. "We have no problems with them. Let them come back," said one young man waiting at Busia police station.

Some of the returnees were still worried about security. Businessman Bernard Mwangi fled to Uganda after arsonists destroyed his shop in the town of Nambale, 40 kilometres away. He said he had decided to stay in Busia.

"I cannot go back to Nambale. The government should give us an alternative to help us rebuild our lives," he said, adding: "I have my children, one in university and the other in a teacher training college, but I cannot pay their fees any more. I need help."

Meanwhile, the Kenyan refugees in Kiryandongo settlement, located in Uganda's fertile Masindi district, have been allocated small plots of land that was used until recently by refugees who have returned to South Sudan.

On Tuesday, many Kenyan families were seen repairing huts previously used by the Sudanese refugees and cutting grass around their home plots. Others began preparing the land for cultivation.

A returnee refreshes herself with water as her bus prepares to cross the Uganda border and arrive in Busia.

"Like other people, I will have to learn how to farm," said 23-year-old David Waweru, who was a businessman before fleeing Kenya earlier this year. "Many things changed in my life and I have no choice but to stay in Uganda and learn to survive. My family doesn't feel ready to go back to Kenya and we have nothing there anymore." He will use farm tools and seeds donated by UNHCR.

The refugee agency has organized several meetings to explain to the refugees their rights. For most of them, the priority is on sending their children to any one of the five UNHCR-supported schools in the settlement, where they will learn alongside Sudanese refugee children and Ugandans from the local community.

Some of the new refugees are looking for business opportunities in Kiryandongo. Ugandan law allows refugees to work and move freely within the country. The 2,000 Kenyan refugees will live alongside 7,000 Sudanese refugees in Kiryandongo.