Another Brutal Attack: Kakuma Camp, October 2021

CONTENT WARNING: Images and descriptions of violence

Another brutal attack occurred in Kakuma on 26th July 2021. Once again, LGBT+ refugees are feeling let down by UNHCR and the Kenya Refugee Affairs Secretariat-RAS. This is not the latest attack and it will not be the last. Lucretia Ssenyonjo John and  Peter Keogh chronicle the latest abuses at Kakuma and make an urgent plea for action.

UNHCR’s website on LGBTQIA+ persons prominently features a video of carefully curated images of LGBTQIA+ refugees’ lives accompanied by surging string music. The video depicts a heart-warming journey from oppression and hopelessness to freedom in a place of safety replete with Pride parades and rainbow flags in clean, corporate, glass buildings. The video culminates with the statement:

“UNHCR works to protect LGBT+ refugees by providing safe spaces and support and helping them re-build their lives. Everyone has a right to feel safe and protected. Let LGBT+ refugees know…you are safe here.”

It’s easy to snipe at fund-raising videos but the contrast between the image UNHCR chooses to project and the reality on the ground has become too heartbreakingly striking to ignore.

LGBTQIA+ refugees at Block 13 of Kakuma refugee camp have been chronicling their struggle with homophobic and transphobic violence and hatred on Covid Chronicles and on their Facebook pages for some time. They have described how their lives have been reduced to constant watchfulness and fearfulness in the face of incessant violent attacks, of how they sleep outside for fear of firebomb attacks, one of which killed Trinidad Jerry, a Block 13 resident in March. Equally disturbing, they have shared how the camp authorities, the office for Refugee Affairs Secretariat-RAS and UNHCR are offering little or no support, protection, or access to justice. 

Lucretia (also called Ssenyonjo John) is a trans woman who has worked tirelessly to share the experiences of her Block 13 comrades and raise awareness of their struggle. Lucretia has told the stories of many comrades who have been victims of violence and now, sadly, she has her own story to tell.

On Monday 26th July, Lucretia was badly injured in a violent transphobic attack. Still in pain and shock from her attack Lucretia told her story to me.

Lucretia in happier times
(Image courtesy of Lucretia)

Lucretia told me that Block 13 residents have a system where people stay awake at night to watch over others who are sleeping out in the open. It was Lucretia’s turn to keep watch. To help her keep awake, she went with her partner Geoffrey to buy coffee at a local shop a few minutes’ walk away. On their way back, they realised that a group of four men were following them.  These men caught up with them and surrounded them calling them a ‘bad example’ and asking them why they were recruiting children to do ‘your things’. They used the Swahili term ‘hawa ndio wale’ meaning ‘these are the ones’. For Lucretia, this phrase links the attack to threatening posters and leaflets put up all over the camp inciting targeted violence against LGBTIQ+ people. Lucretia and Geoffrey tried to reason with them, but one of them hit Lucretia in the face with a sharp heavy object causing her to collapse. As she tried to get up, she felt another sharp blow to her back. She said:

“I felt as if my head was rolling off my neck. I was screaming and there was blood everywhere.”

As Lucretia and Geoffrey fled, the attackers pelted them with stones hitting Geoffrey in the head.

A poster in English and Kiswahili calling for the killing of LGBTQIA+
(Image courtesy of Lucretia)

Block 13 residents took Lucretia to the camp clinic where her wounds were stitched with no anaesthetic and no pain relief. Her comrades carried her back to Block 13 because there was no ambulance. That night, Lucretia had only two paracetamol tablets to control her pain. In the evening of the following day, she finally got some antibiotics from the hospital and has managed to find some more paracetamol but she is still in terrible pain.

Lucretia’s injuries
(Image courtesy of Lucretia)

Lucretia reported the attack to camp police. Their response was to chide her, telling her that she has brought the attack on herself for being LGBTQIA+ and that she should marry a straight girl and settle down.

She also reported the attack to the Refugee Affairs Secretariat-RAS office. Lucretia says that they gave her a choice: either put up with the situation at Kakuma or they could repatriate her back to Uganda. Lucretia is certain that if she returns to Uganda, she will face the violence she fled there.

“The choice they have given me is to be murdered in Kakuma or be murdered in Uganda.”

Lucretia says she is feeling suicidal and desperately frightened. She has packed up her things and has asked the Refugee Affairs Secretariat-RAS office to call when they are ready to send her back to Uganda even though she is sure she will face similar violence and perhaps death.

Rhetoric and Reality: Feeling let down by UNHCR

Despite repeated appeals and demands by Block 13 residents over the past years, UNHCR and the Kenyan government has done little to help them.

“…the solution offered by UNHCR to Block 13 residents is that we should disperse around the camp and live separately, to attract less notice.”

However, Lucretia is certain that were she to do this, it would only be a matter of time before she is ‘killed like a chicken’.

“By proposing this course of action, UNHCR are effectively telling LGBTQIA+ refugees to hide their sexual and gender identities and to live in fear.”

So, the reality could not be further than the UNHCR’s rhetoric in their promo videos. The UNHCR website also features several reports saying repeatedly that LGBTQIA+ refugees experience specific forms of oppression and violence both in their country of origin and throughout their refugee journey; and that, in order to claim their rights and live without fear in refugee settlements, they need different (not preferential) approaches and treatment. What does that even mean?

Like many of the refugees in Kakuma, Lucretia’s journey as a transwoman and refugee has been tragically stalled. However, despite the abject failure of those charged with their care, many Kakuma refugees are managing to craft lives for themselves and their children. This is not an option for Lucretia and her fellow Block 13 residents. Lucretia’s experience shows that all UNHCR and the Kenyan government has done is to recreate the violent conditions they already fled from. But this time it’s worse. This time, there is nowhere for Lucretia to go.

Call for Action by Block 13 residents

  1. We need a safe place where we can live without fear of being attacked for who we are and to prevent further injuries and loss of live as a result of these homophobic attacks.
  2. We call on the UNHCR to evacuate us out of Kakuma as a short-term measure to prevent further loss of lives.
  3. We remind UNHCR and its partners that we are the victims in Kakuma and not the problem and that if our sexuality becomes known for some reason that in itself is not a crime and definitely does not justify an attack on us as they have indicated in their statements.
  4. We remind UNHCR and that all the challenges that we continue to face in Kakuma are directly associated with us being in an already proven homophobic environment, and that the current security measures in place have failed to protect lives and counting on them to protect us, further endangers our lives.
  5. We also remind the UNHCR and its partners that bringing us to Kakuma was a mistake as the deaths of Chriton Atuhwera and Namubiru Patricia has shown and not to mention the grave injuries that we continue to sustain as a result of that decision.  We urge them to learn from our losses and horrible experiences and undo their fatal decision to keep us in Kakuma.
  6. We call on the UNHCR to stop covering up clear acts of homophobia and transphobia. Their continued effort to delegitimize attacks on the LGBTQIA+ by blaming the victims is very unfortunate and to say the least shocking.
  7. We call on the UNHCR to stop endangering the LGBTQIA+ further by insisting that they meet and dialogue with their attacker. This is not only insensitive to the already traumatized community but also further exposes the us without guarantee that it will work.
Image courtesy of Free Block 13 Kakuma

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