It’s hard to imagine what it’s like for my friend, Deo, to keep watch through the night in Block 13 of Kakuma Refugee Camp. The night is dark. The sky is salted with stars, maybe a moon offers some light. Maybe he sits in complete darkness. I am sure he listens and watches. Hoping for quiet. But he knows it will not always be quiet.
The Kenyan night is rarely quiet. It is rarely still. There is often some innocent sound: donkeys, a motorcycle, someone coughing. But in Block 13 of Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, the sounds are not always innocent. Sometimes they are dangerous. This is why refugees mostly sleep outside and have to guard one another, staying awake throughout the night to alert and protect one another. In a refugee camp run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, this should not be necessary. But it is.
In 2020, Kakuma Refugee Camp, in northwestern Kenya, held approximately 196,000 people. Today, it holds more than 200,000 people, some registered refugees, others are asylum seekers, most of whom are not registered refugees. Today, Block 13 is a section of Kakuma Refugee Camp that is home to 200-300 LGBTQIA people. Men, women, and children. Each night, a few residents of the block stay awake to guard the others because this place is dangerous.
For the last several years, the LGBTQIA residents of Block 13 have faced violence from other refugees, people who live near the camp, and from the security personnel whose charge is to protect them. Because of this violence, they keep watch themselves. They cannot access the normal services of the camp because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. It is not safe for them to use the educational services. Sometimes, it is not even safe for them to get medical attention at the camp’s hospitals. Even walking to get water or to charge their phones can open them to attack. This is a daily reality for these vulnerable people.
They have experienced knife and machete attacks. They have had their shelters set afire in the night. This is primarily what causes everyone to sleep outside and what prompts their own to keep watch. In March of 2021, in the middle of the night, two men, Jordan Ayesigye and Chriton Atuhwera were doused with petrol in the night and set afire. Both were burned badly. Chriton died some days later in a hospital. Jordan, after friends pressured UNHCR to get him to an adequate hospital, was sent to two different hospitals. Eventually, private citizens intervened and got him into a private hospital in Nairobi, where he spent many months. He recovered and has recently been released.
The residents of Block 13 face harassment from camp officials and security forces there because they are active on social media, often chronicling their treatment with video and photographs. Because of this, they have faced random arrests, intimidation, and torture. Recently, a group of hostile people who live near them have been assaulting them with stones at night, attempting to steal their phones and other belongings. UNHCR has reduced their food rations and this makes everyone around them more desperate. It also makes the people of Block 13 even less safe.
Each night, three or four residents of Block 13 keep watch. They guard their community, hoping their watchful presence will deter those who want to harm them. They also hope their presence will enable them to alert everyone if someone enters their area with gasoline, machetes, or stones. This is what it has come to. Refugees have to guard one another. UNHCR, the massive international agency charged with keeping these people safe, cannot, or will not, do what is needed to safeguard these poor people.
Most of the residents of Block 13 have fled their own countries because they were abandoned or driven out by others. The people in Block 13, whose stories I have heard, were exiled by their families, threatened with death in their villages, and so have fled. Usually first to a large city, then eventually to Kakuma, hoping and expecting to be safe here. These people come from Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and other, mostly East African, countries. Their lives have already been marked by violence, abandonment, and terror. They deserve better than what they get in Kakuma.
My friend, Deo, tells me that between 2am and 4am it is coldest. He wears a sweater and coat to keep the chill away. He watches for the soft light of the dawn that might mean they have come through a night safely. I can only imagine the relief that comes when the orange light of the sun slowly builds in the east, heralding another day.
The people in Block 13 have asked to be evacuated to a safer place. This is an urgent and immediate need. The longterm solution though, is resettlement. The Kenyan agency responsible for registering them as refugees has not even given them Refugee Status Determination yet, also known as RSD. Without this “status,” they cannot even begin the long and arduous process of applying for asylum or resettlement in another country.
The LGBTQIA people of Block 13 deserve a chance to live full and joyful lives. They deserve to live in safety, in a place where they can thrive, learn, work, and love, without fear. The world owes these people. They have done nothing wrong. In fact, they have already shown remarkable courage by being who they are. Their courage should be rewarded, not punished. They are already brave and heroic.
If you can help, reach out to your member of Congress, your city council, the US State Department, your church, synagogue, or mosque. The more people and groups who speak up, write letters, make phone calls, the more chance there is to get these people into a safe and secure place, where they can live full and rich lives. Below are some resources you can explore. I hope you will.
Here is a link to a statement by the Parliament of the European Union on the conditions of people in Kakuma: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/B-9-2021-0454_EN.html
Victor Mukasa is an activist in Baltimore, Maryland who knows the situation in Kakuma very well. Check out his facebook page or email him at victorjmukasa@josephrossnet
Gilbert Kagarura is an activist and refugee in Block 13. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
More information is also available at #freeblock13
You will find a lot of information if you google Block 13 Kakuma Refugee Camp LGBTQ Refugees.