1,133 is not just a number

It is my 10 birthday

Celebrating angels born out of violence

16 August 2018 - 14:08

Birthday songs rent the air as some 20 children in paper crowns and facemasks troop forward to slice cake for the guests.

Chocolate decorations proclaim: “It’s my 10th birthday.” ‘Happy Birthday’ chants punctuate the swaying and clapping, but still there is somberness to this celebration.

A phalanx of cameras and microphones crowd the lectern of the five-star city hotel, instantly electrifying the motley crowd of a hundred people into a buzz of conversation.

Raising these girls and boys to reach the 10-year milestone has been a labour of love, but also a taxing undertaking.

Only fate intervened for Elizabeth Atieno’s daughter to be present today. Her mother once took her to the crowded Gikomba open-air market in Nairobi with a mind to abandon her in the confusion. Only her daughter’s trusting belief that she would return got Elizabeth to change her mind. Elizabeth confesses that she had earlier slashed her daughter’s thigh and hand with a razor blade over a transgression, telling her: “I will put on you a mark you will look at and never forget me.”

Elizabeth’s daughter was conceived from a gang rape at the height of the post-2007 election violence when she was a 16-year-old girl on school holiday in the city. An orphan without any family, Elizabeth had planned on leaving the child at the hospital but changed her mind when she set eyes on her. Elizabeth has attempted suicide several times but pulled back each time when her daughter reminded her how good a mother she was.

Raising children that had not been planned for in hostile communities takes its toll.

Rape is the most under-reported crime in Kenya. It is estimated that only one out of 20 women in the country will report a rape during ordinary times, and only one in six will seek medical assistance. During times of conflict, it is far much worse.

Grace Agenda, a community-based survivor group established in 2010 supports over 124 women who conceived from rape during the post-2007 election violence and gave birth to children.

The Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence, commonly known as the Waki Commission, so named after its chairman, appellate judge Philip Waki, estimated that some 900 women suffered sexual violence during the crisis. Sexual violence was the weapon of choice for organised gangs, neighbours and random criminals and security forces.

When the women start speaking at the 2018 commemoration of the international day for the elimination of sexual violence in conflict situations, their voices are composed and their tones controlled. Even, then their voices break like a flood and spill into the room, infecting the detached office workers dressed in power suits and suffused in objective distance. Choking on emotion, they speak in turns, their words turning into a chant in the tone of a prayer, a cry for help.


Every time the word korto is mentioned in Josephine Namusonge’s hearing in her Mt Elgon home area in Bungoma County, it cuts deep because she knows that she is the one being referred to. “I am being called malaya [whore], called korto, a plaything for men!”

Josephine, clean-shaven and dressed in a black flowery African print dress walks to the podium. She is a slender woman, of medium height with delicate features. She, too, has travelled the 370 kilometres from Mt Elgon to speak about her life: “Since 2007-8 I have lost a great deal. Many of us suffered. We were raped and mutilated and left with disabilities.

“I gave birth to a child in great pain. I was married but when there was a security operation, my husband was seized and detained. When he returned, I was pregnant. He has tortured that child until he is now lame.”

She pauses briefly for breath and strength, then continues: “Since I gave birth to this child, he calls me a whore all the time. When he comes home, he calls me korto, a plaything for men.

“That child suffers when people refer to him as a child of rape. That is the child of many soldiers, they say. She gave birth to the seed of the soldiers [who carried out the security operation in Mt Elgon].

“Why did this happen and the perpetrators are still alive? I have become a laughing stock and the subject of derision. I thank God who remembers me. I gave birth to this child in difficulty, resulting in a restorative operation. I have become a vessel without direction,” she says, her cry turning into a prayer, a cry for help.

“Others who suffered like me have died while still complaining. We will all die because we cannot do anything.”

Vivian, who was paralysed in one leg by childhood polio, was caring for her sister’s children in 2007 when three men attacked her. Two pinned each leg down as a third began to rape her; then the rest took turns with her. A wave of shock ripples through the conference room as she relives her experience, “My screams brought forth no help as all the adults had fled. They left me pregnant. There is the child… [Calls the child by name], come!”

“I have really struggled with this child. I was raped, but I have never told my child a thing like that because in school, he would be the subject of ridicule,” Christine tells the room.

A widower proposed marriage and Vivian accepted on the understanding that he would take in her child. But as soon as he sired a child by her, he began to mistreat her elder child.

 “You just find yourself in tears. Only God works for us. My life is painful; I suffer with the child… My husband beats me while beating the child. I am scarred.”

As the world commemorated the international day of the elimination of sexual violence in conflict situations, memories from during conflict, Kenya was dredging up its share of painful memories from the post-2007 election violence. In that conflict, over a thousand lives were lost, thousands disabled, hundreds of women and men sexually violated. Some of the women raped during violence gave birth to children; others were infected with the HIV.

The Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission, established a year after the Waki Commission, handed in its report in May 2013 and adopted all of the latter’s findings, among others.

The TJRC report recommended that the president, the heads of the judiciary, the police and the military issue public apologies for historical injustices and human rights violations. After the Chief Justice issued a public apology on behalf of the Judiciary in 2013, the President followed suit in 2015 during his State of the Nation address.

“I seek your forgiveness and may God give us grace to draw the lessons from this history to unite as a people and together embrace our future as one people and one nation …” President Uhuru Kenyatta told Parliament.

“My administration was forged from this reconciliation and is building on the effort of the last government to advance the resettlement, reconciliation and relief to internally displaced persons and I am committed to continuing these efforts as necessary… Notwithstanding the recommendation of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, I have instructed the Treasury to establish a fund of Sh10 billion over the next three years to be used for restorative justice.”

It would take two years for some action to follow: In June 2017, President Kenyatta issued cheques for Sh828 million in Kisii and Nyamira counties for 16,000 people displaced during the post-2007 election crisis. Before that, in 2016, then Devolution Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri said the government had spent Sh17 billion on 193,000 IDPs, while Deputy President William Ruto said the government had spent Sh17.5 billion on 28,924 IDP households since 2008, with 20,170 households being resettled in the previous three years.

“My name is Isabel Akinyi,” says the woman now standing at the podium. “I am a post-election (violence) survivor of 2007/2008. Being a survivor of sexual violence is very painful and destabilising. We have retold our stories since 2008 but we have never been heard… Sexual violence continues,” she trails off, her voice weighed down by a sense of betrayal.

All the relief promised to survivors of political violence has never reached women like Isabel.

Her husband fled their matrimonial home after she was raped. She is not alone. “We did not elect to be raped. We were raped because of the electoral violence, and there is no relief. The same thing happened during the 2017 elections.”

Every election generates violence, and each episode results in the rape of women. No one has bothered about it, she adds.

Sophia Nyambura and her daughter were walking home when they saw men approaching them with clubs and machetes. “Let’s run, mother,” the daughter urged. The men pursued and caught with Sophia. They hit her and she fell to the ground hurting the back of her head. Four men pounced on her and raped her, leaving her for dead. She later got up and started walking home. She found her daughter in the house. She had also been raped. Two months later, her daughter found out that she was pregnant. Sophia was diagnosed with HIV. Sophia now depends on her daughter to feed her for she cannot work. The community around them refers to her granddaughter as “mkimbizi” translating to a “refugee.”

The children struggle with issues of identity, belonging and acceptance into their community. They have had to pay for being “watoto waliozaliwa kimakosa,” -- children conceived in error.

Much effort has gone into supporting people displaced by political violence. In December 2016, the chairman of National Coordination Consultative Committee on IDPs announced that the government had compensated all 19,000 individuals who had lived in the 80 different camps and was shifting focus to the 90,000 integrated IDPs, for which it had set aside Sh6 billion. Although promises have been made to survivors of sexual violence, justice is still a bridge too far.

Lilian Moraa from Kisii County finds the reference to her as a refugee hard to bear. “My child died in 2008 during the violence. People have received land, business startup funds, but … every time, we hear people are receiving money none comes to us: Are we in another country?

“People are receiving land, but we are still doing menial jobs washing people’s laundry.” Self-reliant folk have been stripped of their dignity and reduced to begging.

“We are hurting; and you cannot express yourself. We are crying day and night. I do not sleep all night.

Olivia Cheptoo from Vihiga County is momentarily at a loss about where to begin her tale. In the places where we fled for refuge, we are seen as a nuisance. By the way it is so painful. It is really painful. At the end of the day, no one; not even the government, seems concerned.”

Many women’s anguish, pain, frustration, anxiety and the stress continues unabated. It is not just money that has not reached survivors of sexual violence.

Recommendations for security services to acknowledge and publicly for acts of violence committed by security agents during operations and other periods of generalized violence have received action.

The Waki Commission’s recommendation for the government to establish the office of the Special Rapporteur on Sexual Violence, which was echoed by the TJRC report, has hardly received official mention in 10 years. Sexual violence remains a public taboo.

Gender violence recovery centres have been established in every county hospital, but recommendations to prosecute alleged perpetrators such as Nganda Nyenze, who allegedly planned, supervised or was otherwise involved in the Kavamba Operation, where women were raped and/or sexually violated, remain on ice. So, too, are other recommendations demanding that the British government apologise for sexual violence committed against women in Samburu and Laikipia by its soldiers, and negotiations commence on how to compensate survivors.

Survivors of sexual violence have made several proposals to county governments, seen as being closer to them and able to provide quick relief. They have suggested the establishment of county-based special units to rehabilitate survivors of sexual violence from conflict situations.

Elected county women representatives, working with governors, are being urged to use existing county based and governmental health and gender structures, institutions to prioritise the needs of children born out of conflict-related rape by providing access to education bursaries and birth certificates.

County governments needs to establish a comprehensive database of survivors of conflict related sexual violence, says Betty Okero, executive director of the NGO Consortium.

Survivors also need a safe, secure mechanism for reporting their experiences.

All the names of the sexual violence survivors, except for Elizabeth Atieno who has previously waived privacy consideration, have been changed to protect their identity.

*Kwamchetsi Makokha provided additional reporting for this story

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