Content warning: Reports of sexual violence and images of blood
John S. contacted us at the Covid-19 Chronicles from the Margins project asking us to help raise awareness of the plight of LGBT+ residents and protest to UNHCR at their treatment. He has been in Kakuma camp since early 2020 and is 21 years old. In the interview below, he highlights the dangers faced by LGBT+ refugees.
In Kakuma. “Lives are being lost daily. We are being raped, slashed, beaten and discriminated against. It is too much!” At the same time, he values the fraternity of rainbow refugees in Block 13 at Kakuma. He asked us to share two petitions on change.org and Avaaz, and a Gofundme fund-raiser.
Kenya’s government has ordered UNHCR to close Kakuma refugee camp by mid-April. Dadaab and Kakuma camps are among the largest refugee camps in the world. Both are located in northern Kenya. Together they shelter some 410,000 refugees and asylum-seekers. More than half the population come from Somalia and roughly a quarter from South Sudan. The rest come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan and elsewhere in the region.
There are 300 LGBT+ people, adults and their children confined to Block 13 in Kakuma camp. They have warned UNHCR and the Kenyan government they are unsafe and facing repeated homophobic violence. As the Kenyan government called for refugee camps to close, pressure mounted with a series of attacks. Then on 15 March 2021, a firebomb was thrown into ‘Block 13’, seriously injuring 2 in the LGBT+ community. In its 25 March 2021 statement, UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) claimed they were offeting support and protection to LGBT+ refugees, but the LGBT+ activists dispute this. The UNHCR Protection Office was closed early March 2021, due to COVID. And imminent closure of the camp has opened a hornet’s nest of homophobic violence. According to John, instead of arresting perpetrators of the 15 March fire-bombing, police arrested a gay man. In this interview, John highlights the dangers faced by LGBT+ refugees in Kakuma.
Helen Hintjens (for Cov19Chronicles):
What does the LGBT+ community in Kakuma most need right now?
We need more advocacy to remind UNHCR of their responsibility to protect us. They have abandoned us in Block 13, Kakuma camp. Please remind UNHCR how LGBT people are risking their lives to defend their rights. We want to hear whatever our mother UNHCR decides, but threats of closing the camp has increased xenophobia and homophobia, inside and around the camp.
Turkana people from the host community attack us as they want all refugees to leave this place. Now the government is chasing us out and LGBT+ people in Block 13 are blamed for all these misfortunes.
Please inform everybody of our demands and support us! Please make a loud protest to UNHCR offices and UNHCR HQ in Geneva. Lives are being lost daily. We are being raped, slashed, beaten and discriminated against. It is too much!
Cov19Chronicles: Tell me, John, how you came to seek asylum in Kenya.
My gender identity is a trans-dresser. I used to live in Nansana municipality in Uganda. I worked as a waiter in a restaurant, where I met Derrick, who became my partner in July 2018.
The worst day of my life was when I invited him to my quarters in August 2018. Derrick met my parents. We had a maid who had previously confessed her feelings for me. But I had told her, a relationship between us would not work out. The day Derrick came to my room, this woman suddenly opened the door, and found us naked in bed.
She locked us in the room and made a loud noise, gathering everyone to see the “abomination”. When she unlocked the door, the crowd hit us, stoned us and spat on us. They came for mob justice. We were lucky not to be killed. The police reached the house, firing bullets in the air so the mob scattered.
The police took us to the police station. We had to bribe them not to record us in their books. We ran away. I stayed with my uncle in a rural area, Lusanja. Derrick and me kept meeting, secretly.
Cov19Chronicles: So this brought you to seek asylum in Kenya?
Well it’s a long story. After staying with my uncle about three months, I intervened in a land-grabbing dispute. Around November 2018, a rich man named Mr K grabbed the entire land of the village, pushing the whole community off the land. The man was a fraud, and I decided to give the villagers a hand. Gathering a group of youths, we filed legal cases against that man. We got in touch with powerful people who, we hoped, would help us rescue the land.
I came in touch with one rich elderly lady Ms S who said she wanted to help but she actually wanted to date me. She promised me heaven and earth. I told her I could not love her because I was not that kind. She was amazed such a poor young boy refused to go with her. Ms S even asked me to marry her but I refused. Then she became embarrassed and promised to “pay me back” and threatened me.
The rich man Mr K who was taking over the land made false accusations against my fellow campaigners, getting them put in jail because he had money to bribe everyone. I was the only one still free.
In April 2019, things got much worse. We were in a meeting. Ms S had started following me and Derrick, and captured videos of me and Derrick at RAM – a gay bar, kissing. She showed everyone at the meeting I was a gay with Derrick. They started hitting me, stoned me, but I managed to run and got on a taxi motorbike to Derrick’s place. On reaching there I learned he had already been killed. I took a taxi to Jinja to hide there.
In December 2019, Mr. K. found me at the restaurant where I worked. I don’t know how. He told me to either move out of the country, or he would kill me himself or get me put in jail, since he had proof I was gay. He gave me 5 months. The 3rd month, I left Jinja and crossed into Kenya. I registered as an asylum seeker in Nairobi and was sent immediately to Kakuma camp. I had no choice.
COV-19: Is the LGBT+ community organized in Kakuma organized?
When I talk about Block 13, I mean LGBT+ who are suffering in Kakuma, which is managed by UNHCR. Here we come, the trans girls of Block 13, suffering, discriminated against, butchered like animals, attacked daily, our shelters burned, we suffer sexual assaults.
Before April 2020, UNHCR allocated us different places to live, as we already suffered from homophobic violence. We decided together to go to UNHCR offices, to inform them of our situation. However, no UNHCR official was ready to listen to us. Instead, they ordered Kakuma police to tear gas us and whip us like thieves. We were brought back to Kakuma at gunpoint, where we told them we were unsafe. Then we were brought into one block, with almost 160 LGBTIQ adults, in Block 13.
Whenever someone talks about Block 13, it’s our nightmare. Everyone knows Block 13 is for LGBT+ people. We can’t enjoy our rights or freedom like other people. A lot of refugee lives are exposed and at risk of being lost, with little medicine and poor health. LGBT+ suffer homophobic attacks, from Kenyan Turkana, and from fellow refugees.
Cov19Chronicles: What are your demands of UNHCR and of international actors?
Right now, we are asking for each and every one of us to be evacuated from this place. We are fed up, trans girls, gays and lesbians, ALL of us in this rainbow family at Block 13. We don’t want to feel insecure, to shed our blood any longer. We want our rights respected. We are tired of continuous threats of jail from police, daily discrimination and humiliation from UNHCR. We want to live our lives without hiding. No one wants to spend their whole time indoors, fearing being attacked.
John S. has been in Kakuma camps since early 2020 and is 21 years old. He asked us to share two petitions on change.org and Avaaz, and a Gofundme fund-raiser. 10 days after the firebombing, UNHCR issued this statement, stating the two injured in the fire were being treated in a Nairobi hospital. Support for LGBT+ refugees’ demands has come from Just Associates (JASS, South Africa), the African Coalition of Lesbians, US gay rights on-line magazine Blade, Pan Africa ILGA and Global Interfaith Network. All have backed their demand to be relocated immediately, since Kakuma camp is not able to host them safely. In a recent BBC Africa Today program: (2.41-10 minutes) Gilbert, another LGBT+ activist in Block 13, explains, “spending the night in the camp knowing that everybody else thinks you should die is traumatizing”. Please support the residents of Block 13. Thank you.
Many of the photos shared by John show the brutal injuries to the bodies of LGBT+ people. We have shared some of the less disturbing images here, with his permission. If you want to contact John, Human Rights Defender, please WhatsApp +254708221473 or e-mail using [email protected].