Dark memories as woman in Kiambaa church fire is buried

Winstone Chiseremi @Wchiseremi

The mention of Kiambaa KAG Church forms knots in stomachs of many a Kenyan, owing to the arson attack on the Eldoret church at the height of the 2007/08 post-election violence.

The January 1, 2008 incident that saw more than 30 Kenyans burnt to death in the church remains the highlight of the dark phase the country went through. Outside the burning church, an elderly woman was captured, distraught with her hands held up, a shoe in one hand. The picture of Elizabeth Wangui Kimunya went viral.

And from that day, life was never the same for Wangui, who sank into trauma and depression which she has been battling for over a decade. She died last Saturday at the at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH), Eldoret at the age of 76. She succumbed to depression-related illness and will be laid to rest today at her Kiambaa home.

Her only son, Philip Kimunya, told People Daily that when his mother was pictured outside the burning church, she had arrived from Eldoret town to fend for him. He was aged 16 then, and had been left at the church with other Internally Displaced Persons who had sought shelter at the church as ethnic clashes intensified following a disputed presidential election.

She returned to find the church in flames and she believed her son had been burnt to death inside. She was thrown into a state of confusion. Fortunately, the son had managed to flee the burning church but sustained severe burns for which he was treated at MTRH for over two months. 

Kimunya, 27, said after the violence, which also saw their house torched, her mother’s health changed for the worse. They built a one-roomed house on their land after the skirmishes stopped.   

“Every time she could hear a baby crying from her neighbour’s homestead, she would tell us to flee thinking another attack was imminent,” he said, adding that his mother could not be left unattended because she would roam to no particular place and sometimes disappear. 

Government promise

He said due to her condition, Elizabeth could not do any meaningful work again as she was always in and out of hospital. Prior to the attack, she was a thriving dairy and poultry farmer.

Kimunya criticised the government for abandoning PEV victims, saying they never  saw a coin of the Sh400,000 the government had promised them.

“She had been promised Sh400,000 as compensation for the losses. We went to Nairobi three times to seek the compensation but no one was willing to listen to us,” he said.

He added that they could not afford to pay for a psychiatrist services for the mother and the government never chipped in to help.

“She was diagnosed with depression and hypertension. She became isolated and withdrawn,” said Kinuthia, who bears scars from the burns he sustained having cheated death by jumping out the windows as the church burned.

At the home, where burial preparations were ongoing, the death of Wangui is a stark reminder to her neighbours of the attack.

They shiver with fear when leaders engage in reckless talk seeking to whip up emotions of their supporters.

“We are yet to recover from the scars of the 2008 chaos. We are surprised to hear some politicians making reckless statements. During such instances, women and children suffer the most,” said an unidentified neighbour.

Veronica Kiragu, Wangui’s neighbour, narrated how their housed were reduced to ashes in the height of the violence that drove the country to the brink.

Violence hotspot

She described the deceased as a very hardworking woman prior to the incident, saying she always ensured that her only son got something to eat.

Wangui was taken to hospital last week after her condition worsened and died four days later.

The Rift Valley was the hotspot of the 2007-2008 post-election violence which left 1,133 people dead and more than 600,000 others displaced from their homes.

Violence arose after former President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the Dcember 2007 presidential election. The supporters of his main challenger, ODM leader Raila Odinga, disputed the outcome.

What followed was ethnic clashes in various parts of the country, that lasted up to February 28, 2008.

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