The frontline in the Kenya refugee crisis

Published: 15 September 2011 15:48 CET

By Alexander Matheou and Dr Nasra Ali

“I was walking with my three children, and they just opened fire at us.” The mother fans the air over her four month old baby, whose shoulder has been pierced by a bullet. Her sister sits beside her, stroking the hair of her six-year-old boy, with a bullet hole in his cheek.

Most of the wounded are soldiers, sprawled on blankets on the stone floor, or two to a bed.  The hospital needs matresses, bedding and hygiene kits. The only underground water is salty, but at least that morning the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) had trucked in 10,000 litres of clean water.

The KRCS team, together with the country’s Ministry of Health and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, assess other needs too. If this influx continues, as is anticipated, the hospital will need tents to shelter the new patients, an x-ray machine to assess their wounds and surgical support. KRCS immediately provided 15 boxes of medical supplies, and offered more from its nearby warehouse.

Even food is in short supply. The arrivals are taken care of by community members, who share what little they have, passing it through the hospital windows.

The soldiers and civilian wounded in the hospital in El Wak, in north east Kenya, are casualties of intense fighting a few kilometres away on the other side of the Somali border. The fighting is expected to continue as territories change hands.

The majority of those crossing the border are not wounded, but civilians escaping the fighting. They head not for the refugee camps that are receiving so much media attention, but to villages on the Kenya side of the border, where they know they will find family members, and members of the same tribe.

The village of El Golicha is typical. Three days ago it had around 400 residents, yesterday this number had doubled, and more arrive each day. Most are women, children and the elderly. These relatives can’t be turned away and what little food and water is available is shared.

The water comes from shallow wells, some of which have dried up, in others the water is mixed thick with dust. As the drought struck, the livestock migrated or died, and the villagers used what limited cash they have to buy food from town, but there is never enough to go around.

El Golicha is not unique. Kenyan villages on the Somalia border are the front line of the refugee crisis that accompanies the drought. Family ties and clan loyalty make hospitality a must, but the sheer number of people crossing the border can push local coping mechanisms over the edge.
KRCS is extending its emergency food relief programmes to these border villages, including El Golicha and will extend its emergency health interventions to the same areas.