Some days it is not too difficult to draw the connection between cappuccinos and croissants in Vilnius in Lithuania, and chai mendazi (tea and fried bread) in Kakuma, or to do away with the euphemisms, to compare the Nazi extermination pits in the Ponary Forest where 70,000 Jews were shot in groups of 10, buried, and burned in 1941 through 1944, to what is still presently ongoing in numerous conflicts in this area. Of course I just meet the few fortunate ones, those lucky enough to survive, and get away, and make it to the Kenyan border, and still possessed with enough presence of mind to be able to tell a small part of their story. Sunday, while waiting for our spare tire to magically roll out of the Turkana desert, a young man, Abbas, walked up to us from the Camp. He spoke no Swahili, but excellent English. He was a school teacher in Darfur, that other conflict in Sudan that fell off the news years ago, but never went away. Government soldiers came to his village on horseback, pressing him to join the army. He refused, wanting only to continue teaching and learning. They shot him point blank in the mouth. At this juncture in the story he removed his upper, false teeth, and then turned around to show the bullet exit point in his neck.
Coming back to Kakuma for the fourth time seems to have allowed the refugees I meet to be more at ease to tell me their stories. Despite having done training in 2015 in Gulu, in northern Uganda, no person had ever actually explicitly clearly talked about being a child soldier for Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). It was always someone else’s story. On Monday, one of my students from Uganda, Ouma, spoke matter-of-factly about being a 14 year old guerilla fighter with Kony’s LRA in the village areas of Acholi land, only to take the first opportunity of escape when his guerilla band was bombed, chaos ensued, and he ran, and ran…. Last night, over a 10% Danish beer at Catherine’s (it is a 1 minute walk from my bed, so no driving was involved), Shema, a philosophy major and aid worker in the Camp, told about fleeing Rwanda as a child with his father, a military officer, and his two body guards, taking 12 hours to navigate, cajole, and threaten their way through the many Hutu roadblocks that the Hutu had set up to prevent any Tutsi or suspected Tutsi from fleeing Kigali. This morning, while driving back from the field, one of my Burundian students, Richard, showed me an image of his brother. Though an officer in the military, he had been imprisoned for speaking out against the government. Today, he had escaped prison and crossed the border into Rwanda, with the photo being that of a free man.
Continuing on a positive note, yesterday, Nimrod from IsraAID and myself met with the head of UNHCR WASH. He had only complimentar comments about the technical value of our January exploration program. Based on our results, three productive wells have been drilled in the northern portion of the Camp. These wells are relatively close to Kalobeyei, and will likely replace the water trucking that is presently sustaining Kalobeyei. Our targets near Kalobeyei will be drilled to supply the host Turkana community.
Yesterday morning, before the groundwater class, we were also asked to take a bit of movie footage over the primary school in Kakuma 4 from our drone. For those staff working and volunteering at the school, the phrase of never have so few done so much for so many with so little held more true. With the sun pounding down on the treeless school yard, 20 kids waiting in line for the single slide, a dozen sharing the seesaw, and an annoying UAV buzzing in the distance, I was astounded by the good will and good natured behaviour manifested in a setting more reminiscent of a nursery in the not so futuristic Mad Max movie. So harsh is the landscape, and so intent are the children to take advantage of any opportunity or game or piece of sporting equipment, that even the best quality soccer ball does not last more than a week of being kicked around all day. Gal, the other half of the Israeli couple that forms the entire expat contingent of IsraAID in Kakuma, has clearly played a massively positive role at the school and with the kids. Check it out from the air! And next time you see a tree, hug it!