Experiencing Kenya’s riots first-hand

Crack-crack-crack. At first Sonia was not sure what the noise was – she had never heard gunshots before. But soon the rattle of AK-47s became unmistakable and the thunks of tear gas launchers filled the air. Sonia couldn’t see anything – high walls surrounded her family’s Nairobi townhouse – but when the shopping mall five minutes from her house appeared on KBC News, she knew the rioters were getting close.

“We could not believe what was happening,” said Sonia Ahmed, a GW senior and a native of Kenya.

During winter break, Sonia went home to Nairobi and was looking forward to spending time with her relatives. Instead, a disputed presidential election sparked riots that on Dec. 30 spread from the shantytown of Kibera toward Sonia and her family. She witnessed the crisis first-hand and, now back in D.C., said she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to return to Kenya.

At first, the Ahmeds watched the unrest on the news. Later on Dec. 30 – the day Kenya’s election results were announced in favor of the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki – the power went out. Sonia had to rely on text messages from family members in parts of Nairobi that still had electricity. It was through a text message sent by her cousin, who who still had power and was watching the news, that she learned rioters were hurling bricks at a gas station down the street from her home.

For three days, Sonia, her sister, parents and grandmother had little choice but to hunker down while Kenya imploded around them. When the power was on, the Ahmeds watched the news; when it was off they played board games. They read the newspapers, with headlines like “Save our Country,” and stories of atrocities in the western regions like the Rift Valley, where violence increasingly wore the garb of ethnic conflict. The death toll quickly climbed into the hundreds.

Because the Ahmeds live down the road from the president’s residence, government troops soon secured the area. After three days of remaining indoors, Sonia thought she could slip through the gates to see what was going on outside. Her usually bustling street was deserted and littered with burnt tires and broken glass. She quickly attracted the suspicion of some heavily armed government soldiers and went back inside.

When Sonia left for the U.S. a week later on Jan. 12, she thought things had calmed for good. News still reported horrific violence throughout Kenya but by now it seemed like it was happening “in a different country,” Sonia said because they hadn’t heard gunshots in several days.

Later that day, the opposition leader Raila Odinga called for three days of protest for the following week. Once back at GW, Sonia’s concern for her parents grew. On one of the first days of classes, Sonia was walking through Duqu?s Hall. On the plasma TV in the lobby, CNN was reporting on the continuing violence and upcoming protests, which had the potential to morph into full-scale riots. Somehow, seeing it covered on “American news” made the situation seem even graver. Talking with her parents on Skype, she pushed them to leave.

Eventually, they consented and booked tickets to leave for Singapore Jan. 16, the first day of the scheduled protests. Sonia couldn’t wait for them to be out of the country but also knew that leaving for Singapore meant leaving the relative safety of their compound and traveling 14 miles through the city to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

The day her parents were set to leave, CNN and BBC both reported that the protests had, in fact, turned violent. She talked to them right before they left the house and then waited, anxious, for another call.

And it came, a couple hours later. They were safely on board, heading to Singapore.

Sonia said she still checks the BBC daily and communicates with cousins in Kenya using Facebook. For them, life has largely returned to normal though Sonia still receives occasional messages like “things are a little rough here,” “we pray things will cool down soon” and “wish things were different.”

The death toll now exceeds 1,000 and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is currently mediating negotiations between the two sides, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is slated to join Annan in Nairobi this week. There have been rumors of a tentative agreement, but its efficacy remains to be seen.

Sonia wants to return to Kenya sometime – “I mean, it’s my home” – but doesn’t know when. As a Kenyan-Indian who moved to Singapore when she was six and lived there for 14 years before attending college in the U.S., she’s used to being away from home. “I don’t know where I belong . they have a name for us. We’re called Third Culture Kids,” she said, referring to children who’ve lived for a significant period of time in a culture other than their own and have integrated elements of both into a third culture.

For Sonia, the most important thing is that her family is safe. “You know how people ask you where you’d like to be when you die? I don’t care, as long as I’m with my family and friends . Family comes first, no matter what.”

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