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Why Kenyan refugees in Uganda are not ready to return home

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By HALIMA ABDALLAH

Some 1,700 Kenyan refugees who fled to Uganda after the bloody 2007 presidential polls do not want to return home.

They fear history could repeat itself come the next general election in 2012 if key issues on land and ethnicity are not addressed.

The refugees have been living at the Kiryayandongo Refugee Settlement Camp in Masindi, northwestern Uganda.

Francis Githenji, a teacher at the camp's Orlando Primary School and a former resident of Rift Valley, says:

"Tribe is still a bone of contention and unless the government allocates me land elsewhere, I am better off here."

According to the United Nation's High Commission for Refugees, 12,000Kenyans fled to Uganda in early 2008.

But after the signing of a peace agreement that led to the formation of a coalition government, many slowly returned home.

Some 2,100 were granted refugee status, out of whom 400 have agreed to return home before the end of the year.

Peter Karanja, a former businessman in Busia, Western Kenya annd chairman of the Kenyan community in the camp, shares Mr Githenji's sentiments and adds that the decision to return home depends largely on how much a person lost in the flare-up.

"I was a campaign agent for Kibaki, a fact most of my neighbours desliked. No matter how much money the government gives me, I will not return; ethnicity is still an issue," says Mr Karanja.

He adds: "Those who agreed to return either did not lose much or were small scale traders who can easily pick-up their lives."

In a move to encourage voluntary repatriation, the Kenyan Government is giving Ksh35,000 (£467) per person, while the UNHCR is topping it up with £50.

The office of the Prime Minister is also allocating each family a parcel of land measuring 50m by 100m.

But many refugees say the money is insufficient and camp life is far better - they have access to basic medical facilities, land to cultivate, free education for their children and "comfortable" living spaces for each family.

On the other hand, those who agreed to be repatriated home are hesitant.

Some have left their land with caretakers, meaning they can return to Uganda and claim it.

Rosemary Chepkwemo, a single mother from Mt Elgon in western Kenya, will not budge either.

At the time The EastAfrican visited the camp, her mother had just arrived from Kenya to persuade her to return home.

"Life back home is difficult. My husband went missing during the post-poll violence and I still do not know his whereabouts. Here, my children attend school for free," she said.

Sudanese nationals who share the camp also remain sceptical about returning home.

The country awaits a referendum vote slated for 2011, that will decide the fate of the South - whether it should become an independent state or continue to be part of the country - but many nationals think the exercise will breed violence.

Recently, the UNHCR conducted an Intention Survey to determine why people were unwilling to return to their countries. Sudanese and Kenyan nationals expressed similar sentiments.

Reasons for holding back

Topping the list was security in coming elections and access to education as well as healthcare; others said they would return as soon as they had harvested their crop while a number felt the environment in Uganda was more conducive.

Anthony Oba, secretary general, Refugee Welfare Council said:

"Some of our people are HIV positive and are on antiretroviral drugs which the government of Ugands provides free of charge. They fear returning to Southern Sudan they won't get the drug any more."

During the survey, the refugees were offered four options: Voluntary repatriation; local integration but retain their refugee status; reallocation to another camp; or resettlement to a third country. The majority preferred their present location.

Ruth Nduta, a single mother, opted for local integration.

She lives at Bweyale trading centre, some 230 kilometres north of Kampala, where she sells doughnuts and tea for a living.

For start-up capital, she sold the mattress and blanket she received at the camp.

Back home in Mt Elgon, she was a secondhand clothes dealer.

Her husband abandoned her and their four-year-old child during the violence.

"With my small earnings, I can feed my child. I don't even think of returning home, " she said.

Indeed, some refugees from Kenya fear that once the East African Community opens up its borders, they will still live as refugees, access frees land for cultivation and trade easily in the expanded markets.