In this first part of the series, PETER OKEUGO reports that in their search for safety and protection, these Gay and Transgender refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma Camp fled homophobic attacks in Uganda, only to meet doom in what should be a safe haven. This report is a follow up to Emmanuel Sadi’s interview with Tobias Pellicciari on the situation of LGBT refugees in the camp.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The names of the victims have been changed to protect their identity. Also, some of the images in this report are graphic and might be offensive to some.
March 9, 2018 is the day Mugisha Daniel, 23, will not forget in a hurry. That was the day he was attacked at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya by a group of men from the Turkana County. The horrific incident left him with only one eye. Originally from the Manafwa District in Eastern Uganda, Daniel was forced to run away from his village to Kampala in December 2015 after he was exposed for being gay. One year later, he fled his country because of the several threats and attacks he received, leaving his job as a supervising security officer at a club in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
For 25-year-old transgender woman, Mbabazi Kutesa, the attack on March 29 was not the first she experienced at the camp, but it has been the worst so far.
She sustained injuries from broken bottles and knife cuts, leaving her with scars which have yet to heal. Kutesa hails from Lyantonde District in the Central Region of Uganda. Her trauma began on January 9, 2017 when the club where she attended a gay-themed party with Peter, her husband, was raided by the Ugandan Police. While some of the attendees were arrested, the manager of the club hid them in his house for two weeks. Because they had been declared wanted and the town was no longer safe for them, the club manager gave them transport fare and they left for Kampala.
Kutesa, who is not fluent with the English language, spoke with much difficulty and little coherence. Her responses to questions were translated by her husband.
Journey to doom
On December 18, 2016, Daniel travelled to the village to bring his partner over to Kampala with him. He had previously phoned to tell him how his parents and the local community constantly threatened his life because he is gay. While sleeping that night, policemen and the locals invaded their room and attacked them. Daniel escaped, leaving his partner behind whose whereabouts he does not know till date.
“I do not know if he was lynched. The phone number which I had has been switched off since then. I managed to jump through the window and ran through the bush up to the road. By dawn, I had walked up to a place called Chwele and met a lady whom I begged for a job,” he narrated.
Upon studying his mood, the lady enquired about what happened to him and he narrated his ordeal. Afraid that he might be traced to her business and killed, she gave him transport fare and he boarded a bus to Kenya. He arrived at the Kakuma Camp on December 20, 2016.
On arriving Kampala, Kutesa notified her brother who informed the Police and her parents. The Police apprehended her when they arrived, and her husband who was swifter escaped the arrest. While in custody, the Police asked to see her genitals to prove she was born female and she was repeatedly raped by male inmates at the police station. She was released after four days.
“They (Police) realised that it could be a big problem for them because I had been raped. They released me on bail, claiming that I was wrongly arrested,” she said.
Immediately she left the police station, she phoned her husband who was washing cars for a wage and informed him of her release and location. When they met, Peter called his cousin who gave him some money and with that, they boarded the 3pm bus for Nairobi that same day. They reached Nairobi the next day and located the refugee processing centre of the Kenya Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS) at Shauri Moyo, Nairobi for registration. They arrived at the Kakuma Refugee Camp on March 3, 2017.
In the belly of the beast
As a gay man from Uganda, life at the Kakuma Camp was not rosy for Daniel. After undergoing registration at the UNHCR office inside the camp, he settled into his new life as a refugee in a strange country. An industrious and hardworking Daniel sought menial jobs to keep himself occupied. It was however difficult for him to sustain the jobs when people found out he is gay. Eventually, he floated a small restaurant which catered to the Lesbian Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community but he was not safe.
“When the community realised I am gay and that I welcomed transgender people at my restaurant, they informed the Kenyan Police who attacked me and beat me up,” said Kelvin. “A few weeks after the incident, I met a mob who wanted to lynch a transgender man names Davis and I rescued him. I reported these incidents to UNHCR Protection Officers but no action was taken.”
The situation is perhaps worse for Kutesa and other transgender.
Because of their feminine nature and clothes, they are easy target of attacks and assault. “We are always beaten whenever we go to fetch water because of the way we are dressed,” Kutesa noted.
Turkana County is the second largest and one of the 47 counties in Kenya. Kakuma town, located in the north-western part of Turkana West sub-county, is the site for the Kakuma refugee camp. Its location is in the second poorest region in Kenya. The camp comprises of four parts: Kakuma I, Kakuma II, Kakuma III and Kakuma IV.
As at April 2018, the current refugee population at Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei settlement is 185,361, outnumbering that of the host community which is a little over 60,000. There have been ongoing debates about the standard of living of the refugees being higher than that of the host community. Although this was debunked in a March 15, 2018 tweet by the Refugee Affairs Secretariat in Kenya, the Deputy County Secretary of the Turkana County, Robert Loyelei told The Rustin Times that this could be the cause of the never-ending tension between refugees and host community. This has resulted in violent attacks by the Turkana group on the refugees. The attacks have been extended to LGBT refugees in the camp.
“For sure, one of the reasons they do not relate well is because all the support goes to the refugees and nothing goes to the host community,” Loyelei said. “The UNHCR has launched different projects for the refugees and no projects for the Turkana people. In cases where the refugees get clean water and good education while the host community does not, that could be a problem. If you do not treat your neighbour well, the neighbour will not be happy seeing you walk around.”
However, he added that the Turkana County government has established joint programmes with the UNHCR to address these issues and ensure that both communities live in harmony.
The day tragedy struck
The day began as usual for Daniel. After attending to customers in his restaurant, he left at about 3:30 p.m to pick up his phone from the technician in the camp where it was being fixed. He left the technician at around past 5:00 p.m, but never got home.
“On my way back, three men accosted me and asked if I was Ugandan,” Daniel narrated. “I replied in the affirmative. They said that I would be used as a scapegoat before they attack the LGBT community. Suddenly, they hit me with a stone and stabbed me with a knife.”
The knife was aimed at his heart but while struggling with the assailants, the knife was driven into his left eye. With little strength left in him, he made his way to the Main Hospital in Kakuma I camp to get medical help. He was eventually referred to the Clinic Seven. As his condition worsened, he was referred again to Kikuyu Hospital in Nairobi.
“I was accompanied by a friend named Chris, and I spent a week there (Kikuyu),” he continued. “My bills were paid by the National Catholic Church of Kenya, but they left me as I refused to go back to the Camp. That is also one of the reasons why I have failed to go for my appointments at the Kikuyu Hospital.”
Kutesa’s attack on March 29 was the fourth major she had suffered at the refugee camp.
That excludes the series of minor attacks she experienced occasionally. Her shelter, located at the boundary where the host community begins, makes it easy for her to be attacked. It was while trying to report those attacks that the last one occurred.
“I went to the UNHCR compound in Kakuma I to report these attacks,” Kutesa narrated. “But the UNHCR officers did not attend to us, so we decided to sleep in the compound. They did the next day but after listening to us, they went back inside and never came back so we decided to sleep in the compound for as long as we could.”
They were attacked by the host community three times while they slept at the UNHCR compound. The worst hit which occurred on March 29 left her with a broken forehead and cuts on her body. Kutesa collapsed as a result of the attack but was revived few hours later in the hospital.
An unending fear
On April 12, 2018, a Facebook user, Nakawunde Ben, wrote about attacks on the transgender group in the camp.
Ben wrote: “Since we left the UNHCR compound, we never get any assistance (sic). Some of us are so sick with heavy wounds. Some of us are coughing blood (sic). We try to go to the hospital in Kakuma, but they just give us only painkillers which is not enough to our wounds (sic). We try to cry to the UNCHR to assist us in the bad situation but nothing they have done (sic).”
It has been two months since the last attack, but the survivors have continued to live in fear for their lives and safety.
Although he stayed back in Nairobi, Daniel said he is still not safe.
“The UNHCR promised me protection on the day of my registration, which was what I needed as I left Uganda,” Daniel said. “If I am still experiencing regular insecurities, I should be taken to another country where my life will be safe. It is also terrible to be in Kenya because the Police are against us.”
Kutesa appeared to have not recovered from the trauma of her attack.
Her husband, Peter, said she seems withdrawn from social interactions. “She has been very scared,” he said. “She has nightmares and wakes up screaming. These are the experiences which I have noticed; I can imagine what she could be passing through.”
LGBT refugees are suffering
The Rustin Times contacted Yvonne Ndege, UN Refugee Agency Spokesperson, Kenya,
She said the UNHCR and partners have made some efforts to ensure that the LGBT refugees and asylum seekers are safe and protected, and that all services including medical are always provided to them.
Ndege said, “They are included by the World Food Programme in the Bamba Chakula scheme (e-voucher food system) to minimise the risk of intimidation and harassment during food distribution.”
Responding to the claims, Kutesa’s husband, Peter, said feeding has been a major problem and is not as easy as it has been framed.
“Food is usually shared in rations every month,” Peter said. “We get two cups of cowpeas, two cups of maize, six kilos of sorghum, one litre of cooking oil and a small bar of soap. These do not last and we need extra. Sometimes, we do not eat twice a day because it is never enough. So, the LGBT community maximise the food by cooking collectively and sharing. We are supposed to get firewood for cooking but they do not provide these, so we buy charcoal.”
Peter mentioned that the Bamba Chakula is funded with five dollars monthly and also insufficient.
Ndege also noted that the LGBT group has been offered several livelihood training, and some have refused to be part of it thinking that it will have a negative impact to their future resettlement cases.
But Peter said it is difficult for LGBT people to get a job in the camp as a result of discrimination.
“There are jobs,” Peter said, “but the moment they know you are Ugandan, they will assume you are gay and will be ignored.”
Kutesa added that she could not participate in the training because of the way she dressed and the attention it attracted which led to her being attacked in the past.
Peter is also concerned about Kutesa’s health.
“My wife is HIV positive and she does not feed well,” he stated. “This is bad for her health. The medical facilities in the camp are not well equipped. The drugs available are for pain relief and when you complain, the staff will say that is all they have. Also, she is transgender and does not have access to hormones to enable her transition. We have complained to the UNHCR officials but nothing has been done. She used to buy them from the black market in Uganda.”
However, Ndege said that for specialised treatment, UNHCR refers to Kenyan public hospitals following the health policy.
“Public hospitals in Kenya don’t provide hormones therapy for transgender refugees, asylum seekers or its nationals,” said Ndege.
Is the UNHCR Kenya neglecting LGBT refugees?
On March 21, the transgender group at the camp staged a protest at the UNHCR office to complain about the frequent attacks and failure of the UNHCR to provide protection for them. Kutesa stated that they were neglected by the UNHCR.
On May 17, 2018, a video message by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, was published on UNHCR official Facebook page to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. His statement affirmed the global organisation’s stance on providing protection for LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers.
The statement read in part: “When people flee their communities, their support networks become fragile and broken, and the protection risks they face often become more acute. LGBTI refugees and displaced people, frequently more than others, are confronted with this challenge even in countries of asylum… We can strengthen LGBTI refugees and IDPs support networks, encouraging governments, civil society, humanitarian and development actors, donors, academia and the private sector to help ensure that all refugees, IDPS and stateless persons are treated as equals in dignity and rights irrespective of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity and to respond to needs arising from the intersection of age, gender and other forms of diversity.”
But, a review on the UNHCR Kenya Facebook page by Nakawunde Ben on March 27 implied that the organisation may have failed to keep to this commitment.
Ben wrote: “Shame to the UNHCR Kakuma Kenya because nothing it has done especially towards us the transgender and our fellow LGBTI members (sic)…Only suffering is brought towards us. We are even crying for help but no action has been done at all to help us and it’s now one month and one week and we the group of transgender sleeping outside the UNHCR Kakuma Kenya compound seeking for protection.”
Hope for improved standard of living?
Among the complaints by the refugees were flooded shelters as well as infestation of poisonous spiders, snakes, scorpions and outbreaks of malaria.
Ndege noted that UNHCR has identified the need for construction of drainage systems and flood mitigation structures, although there is limited current funding.
She also added that UNHCR and partners distribute systematically mosquitoes net for all new arrivals and conduct general mosquito net distribution every five years for all households.
“UNHCR has also prepositioned testing kits at all eight health facilities and anti-malaria medication recommended by World Health Organisation; as well as anti-venom in three of the eight health facilities. These three health facilities operate 24 hours,” Ndege said.
However, two days before the transgender women were attacked by the Turkana group at the UNHCR compound, Nakawunde Ben wrote on Facebook: “UNHCR build (sic) our community in the middle of Turkana. There is no fences (sic), no gate, no security and all the services is very poor… scorpions, snakes and giant centipedes infest our camping too.”
These stories however, are examples of the refugees’ situation which the UNHCR Kenya seems not to be telling.
The global organisation had on May 4, released a publication titled ‘Kakuma As a Marketplace,’ which found that many refugees are involved in economic activity which foster social integration that benefits refugees and the host community.
When a video of the study was posted the same day on the organisation’s Facebook page for publicity, a Facebook user wrote: “I have never seen any corruption like this before in Kakuma.”
A TEDxKakumaCamp event is also slated to hold on June 9, 2018. The Rustin Times enquired about the actual cost budgeted for the event, but as at the time of filing this report, Ndege had not disclosed the information. Could the funds have, when diverted, been enough to improve the living condition of the refugees since UNHCR complained of limited funding?
Pleading for help
Survivors of the attacks by the Turkana group are constantly crying out for help to the UNHCR.
Even in Nairobi, Daniel needs food and shelter.
“When I was discharged from the hospital, they wanted me to go back to Kakuma but I refused,” Daniel said. “Now, I am in Nairobi where I barely even feed. I do not have a job and no one wants to employ a refugee in Nairobi. I would like to request for help because my life is miserable.”
He also mentioned that he lives off friends in order to feed and receive shelter. He has missed his medical checkups at the hospital a couple of times and is unable to buy sunglasses to protect his eyes from the sun because he does not have money.
Ben also wrote: “Where the hosting people beating us stones day and night (sic), and we try to cry to the UNHCR Kakuma Kenya but no any assistance. Any person who can hear our tears please help us. We need our life like other human beings.”
Promising protection, Ndege said that the renovations of the protection areas where LGBT people have been staying are almost complete with minor repairs remaining.
“UNHCR will continue sensitising all stakeholders including host communities and other refugees on peaceful coexistence, non-discrimination, diversity respect; as well as the LGBT refugee community on the importance of respecting the law and regulations of Government of Kenya,” she said.
Featured image: UNHCR