Hanging between life and death

Countering Hate Speech with Love Speech: LGBT+ Lives on the Line in Kenya’s Kakuma Camp

This blog was written by Dr Helen Hintjens from the International Institute of Social Studies in the Hague and Isa Mubiru and Jones Graham from Block 13 in Kenya’s Kakuma Camp.

COV-19 Chronicles from the Margins aims to provide participatory spaces, where our audiences in refugee camps can bring together images, text, videos, poems and artwork, placed on the site and shared with others.  Below, a group of LGBT+ refugees from Kakuma camp in Kenya follow up their earlier blogs, sharing thoughts on the meaning of love and peace, in the context of attacks on them by other refugees in the camp.  Their struggle for basic rights to protection and safety, and for the right to love whom they wish, started before the pandemic, and has been reported in international media. The suspension of resettlement interviews and the decision to close the camp have added another dimension, creating new tensions. One recent development has been posting of hate speech posters around the camp. In light of this, UNHCR’s complete failure to protect the residents of Block 13 and other LGBT+ refugees living in Kakuma, remains the key issue.

A poster in English and Kiswahili calling for killing of LGBT+ (Ugandans)

Although this is not the first time hate speech has circulated in the camp. However, in recent weeks, this trend has taken a new and nasty turn, with hand-drawn posters inciting targeted violence against LGBT+ people, and these posters being plastered across the camp. The posters refer specifically to Ugandan gays, although sexual orientation has no nationality. It seems the posters were written by other refugees living in the camp. The poster reads: “We are going to deal with you evil people you deserve to be killed”. The text on the left in English has been roughly translated into Kiswahili, on the right. The Kiswahili text varies a bit, talking of ‘Shitani’, a misspelling of the word for evil spirit, or devil.    

Sleeping outside in Kakuma for fear of firebombing

In the camp, many LGBT+ people dare not sleep inside in case their shelter is put on fire. But when they sleep outside, they can be attacked by snakes, scorpions or other dangerous animals.  The poster reading “We know all of them” suggests whoever wrote it knows the whereabouts of LGBT+ people, who have been carefully pinpointed by this individual or group.

If this hostile group wants UNHCR to remove the LGBT+ refugees from Kakuma camp, the LGBT+ community just as urgently wants to leave. Their situation is unsafe, even for refugees. They are unprotected from repeated physical attacks, including killings which ensure that fear does not abate. Attacks have involved knives, fire and other weapons. Such attacks are almost always followed by impunity for the perpetrators, and the police rarely arrest anyone. The police are reported not to pay attention when LGBT+ people report they have been attacked. For all those LGBT+ injured in such targeted attacks, there is often very little medical treatment, and the wounded may even die from burns or post-injury infections.

The hate speech in these posters is now terrorizing refugees of Block 13 and other, more isolated LGBT+ refugees in Kakuma.  Reporting from Kakuma, John initially hoped to spread around a counter-poster, expressing the desire that all refugees care for one another, accept one another, and pull together to improve their situation, together. He talks to the other residents of Block 13, and they fear this might give a false impression of unity that UNHCR might use to show that there is no problem in Kakuma between LGBT+ and those who seek to “deal with” them as a group and say openly “You deserve to be killed. Just wait”. In this setting, a poster calling on all refugees to unite might do more harm than good.

“Most of them were actually raising concerns that it might [encourage UNHCR] to make conclusions that we have finally agreed to Unite and associate within the camp community right away though we all know it’s not right.  I had seen it in a perspective that we would reduce the hate among our fellow refugees, which I was right, but because UNHCR might use it as an excuse to make reports and conclude that we are starting to think about uniting, coexisting, or associating with our attackers as is their goal these days, we won’t be broadcasting the poster calling for love and care.”

Asked who they think is writing these posters filled with hatred and threats, John says “Actually we are not sure who is writing this stuff, though we have tried to talk to police and they are saying they will be informing us who they can suspect”.  Whilst collecting reactions to the hate speech of the poster from different people, the group of Block 13 came up with an important decision. They have together written an open letter, which asks for support from all corners. The urgency of this letter has intensified as one of the authors of this blog attacked in late July 2021 (Jones Graham aka John).

This letter raises the issue that resettlement interviews have come to a halt because of the pandemic. Yet violence continues. In recent weeks, there have been attacks which have included an assault on a pregnant lesbian woman who almost lost her baby. In a separate statement the Block 13 group stated:

“We the LGBT in Block 13 continuously condemn such acts of disrespecting each other in the camp among refugees. Prioritizing and imagining superiority amongst [some] refugees could lead to loss of lives among ourselves. We thus call on the UNHCR, partners and the world to condemn this and act immediately as per their mandate, to protect our lives as vulnerable minorities in the camp community. We are left hanging between life and death.”

Just this week, Jones Graham, one of the authors of this blog, was knifed in the back. As one poem said “All of the suffering, pain and injustice I have had to endure is because I am a lesbian, non-conforming” or homosexual, as Christina Reuther wrote in her video blog to the people of Block 13. So the entire community of Block 13 and their allies are urgently asking UNHCR and the EU member states to both protect those targeted in motivated, selective attacks, and to prevent hate speech from inciting violence against the LGBT+ community. They are also asking for resettlement to be speeded up, and here EU member states and the UK are appealed to. Desperate to know what to do, the LGBT+ community reached out and shared the posters, a photo of which is reproduced at the start of this blog. Even a short video shows how their lives have become dominated daily by the search for local and international solidarity (via social media) in these hard times. Their phones are constantly ringing, pinging, communication motivated by the primacy of finding protection and relief from the ‘hostile environment’ they are experiencing.  To counter hate speech with speech that refers to love, care and concern for ALL refugees, is of course a nice idea, and perhaps an obvious one. But how does one preach love and understanding, respect and human rights for all, when our neighbours wish us harm, may even wish us dead? It is expecting a lot.

Source: Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/hashtag/freeblock13kakuma

After Trinidad, a Block 13 refugee died after he was attacked with a firebomb as he slept, and badly burned, the UNHCR promised to improve security for residents of Block 13. However there does not appear to be any follow-through on this promise. After his death, the controversial social justice activist, Stella Nyanzi, who has a huge facebook following, posted this message in solidarity with the LGBT+ community in Kakuma:

“Last night I briefly shared the sad news of the death of a refugee who was burnt along with several others in Block 13 of Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. I am still shocked by many of the responses…(Some people) responded by condemning the dead victim because of his sexual orientation. They mocked him and celebrated that a homosexual was murdered. They said he deserved to be burnt to death. They boasted about how they would burn many more. They even threatened to deport me from Kenya because I defend the human rights of even homosexual people. This is HOMOPHOBIA!”

We wish this story was a happier one. The reality of what LGBT+ refugees in Kakuma camp face daily is grim, yet they remain hopeful of eventual safety, support and justice. Persecution of this group, because of their sexuality and because of who they love, has increased with COVID-19, but then so have group solidarity among the international LGBT. If there is a bright spot on the horizon, it is that day and night the Kakuma LGBT+ community is getting texts, tweets, messages, phone calls, of support, love and care, like Stella’s, from across the world. They have also tried prayer.  They need your support, not only from LGBT+ people, but from people in all walks of life. All those fighting for and contributing their resources to protecting the rights of Block 13 and other LGBT+ people in Kakuma, take courage from Christina Reuther’s words: Soldiers of Love.  Warriors for one another and for change…We will push and push and push until something breaks loose and we are finally free. We are the Revolution”. 

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