Indians in Kenyan city fear second wave of looting
KISUMU, Kenya •
When stores on the main street here went up in flames, Makesh Lakhani loaded his family into the car and sped toward Uganda.
The 52-year-old electrical shop owner paid Kenyan police to escort his family to the border, through the roadblocks with angry men searching for Kikuyus and other tribes that were targeted here in the days following the Dec. 27 election.
And as he drove, the irony of his flight to Kampala, where 30 years ago former president Idi Amin kicked thousands of Indians out of the country, didn’t escape his thoughts.
“All of those things were in my mind,” said Mr. Lakhani, who has since returned to his shop, which was still standing. “Once we were feeling Kenya was much more safe, but now we’re feeling almost the same about Uganda.
“It’s never been this bad here,” he said. “There’s no certainty of when it’s going to be good. You just stay in fear.”
Many of the 2,000 or so Indians who call this city home have returned after fleeing in the fiery days that followed the election. And now they are preparing for it to happen again.
The Kenyan parliament is set to open tomorrow, despite opposition charges that the presi- dency of Mwai Kibaki is “illegitimate.” The opposition is planning nationwide protests for tomorrow, Thursday and Friday.
The rallies have been declared illegal by police and live television broadcasts remain banned as the government attempts to cool temperatures.
An estimated 600 people have died and a further 100,000 displaced in the conflict that erupted following the election, which international observers have described as flawed.
Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is set to arrive in Nairobi this week to attempt to bring Mr. Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga to the negotiation table.
But despite the diplomacy, many here aren’t feeling secure. Indeed, the Lakhani family and much of the Indian community in Kisumu is preparing for the worst.
Yesterday, as people swept broken glass from the streets and dozens of buildings still smouldered, the Indian area of Kisumu buzzed with grinders and saws. At shop after shop, solid metal was being mounted over windows where once there were steel bars.
Several safe houses have been set up with food, water and beds, and the Hindu community is forming its own security force. “It could happen again, so it’s better if people stay together,” Lakhani.
Indians came to Kenya in the early days of the British colonial regime, which ended in 1963. They were employed to build the railroad linking the coast to Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria. After it was complete, they were able to settle here as British citizens.
Mr. Lakhani’s family has been in Kisumu since 1902. Down the street at Sonas Enterprises, the Tanna family has been here since 1908.
But roots or not, when the mobs took to the streets, those with money, and that includes much of the Indian community, were targets, said Annil Tanna.
“Looking at the situation, I went to Dar es Salaam,” he said, standing in the back of his family’s textile shop. “We were afraid they also might attack our homes.”
He returned a few days later when the tension calmed. “We feel things have cooled down, but we’re very afraid of tomorrow,” he said.
Outside the already heavilyfortified shop, men were at work welding steel over the windows.
The older generation is taking it all in stride, but the youth aren’t. “You feel separated,” said 20-year-old Sagar Tanna, the fourth generation of a family born in Kisumu. “They targeted all the businesses. You feel outside.”
An Indian family leaves their apartment after rioters set fire to the lower floor of their building in Kisumu, Kenya, in late December. Looting flared on Saturday, prompted by claims of election rigging.