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The Volunteer Nurses Who Stepped Up to Heal Victims of Kenya’s Police

When protests against the election rerun in Kenya turned violent, volunteer nurses from around the country provided trauma first aid to victims of police brutality in Kisumu. Photojournalist Jennifer Huxta was there to witness a day of healing and loss.

Written by Jennifer Huxta Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Elizabeth Mokkonen (right), a volunteer nurse from Nairobi, puts an I.V. line into the arm of a young man who had been shot in the head by police during the pre-election protests in Kisumu. Jennifer Huxta

KISUMU, Kenya  When Kenya held an election on October 26, no one in Kisumu voted. An earlier vote on August 8, which ended with President Uhuru Kenyatta winning re-election, had been nullified by the Supreme Court because of suspected fraud.

The October do-over was supposed to offer Kenyans another chance at a free and fair election. But opposition candidate Raila Odinga said the new vote would be invalid, in part because there had been no changes made to the overseeing body, the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC), since the August election.

Throughout the country, people held anti-IEBC protests in the weeks leading up to the re-election. Kisumu, the opposition heartland, was one of four counties boycotting the vote. On October 25, the day before the election, only four of 400 presiding officers of the IEBC arrived for work; the rest were afraid of being attacked as they had been during a training exercise before the August vote.

Driving from the town center to the neighborhood of Kondele at the end of the day on October 25, reporters passed through five roadblocks, negotiating with young men who crowded around the car yelling, “No Elections!” and “Uhuru Must Go!” At the roundabout, 20 anti-riot police officers armed with teargas launchers and rifles faced off with a group of protesters who were mostly unarmed. A man in a balaclava threw rocks at the police with a slingshot. At first, the police fired teargas and blanks to disperse the crowd. Then they started firing live rounds above and into the crowd.

Kenyan opposition supporters faced off with anti-riot police in the neighborhood of Kondele on October 25, 2017, to demonstrate their refusal to vote in Kenya’s election rerun in Kisumu the next day. (Jennifer Huxta)

Just as the police had prepared for civil unrest, a group of volunteer nurses was prepared to respond. Calling themselves NASA volunteers after the main opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance, the nurses had originally organized themselves to help with the process and ensure opposition votes were counted.

But when they arrived in Kisumu from all over the country, it quickly became clear they would be focused on healing wounds and saving lives instead. They provided first aid for people with gunshot wounds and those who had been beaten. They ran a blood drive. When the hospital was running low on medical supplies, the volunteer nurses used WhatsApp and social media to crowdsource the funds for surgical instruments, gauze, implants, whatever was needed.

Kenyan anti-riot police patrol Kondele in Kisumu on October 25, 2017. (Jennifer Huxta)

Working With the Wounded

On the afternoon of October 26, as the country voted, the volunteer nurses working at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital in Kisumu carried a young man into the casualty ward. He was wearing only jeans and had an open wound near his ear.

Benson Odhiambo, 20, had been taken to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital after being shot in the head by police. (Jennifer Huxta)

Several times, the man, named Benson Odhiambo, tried to sit up, dazed, and a nurse had to cradle his head and help him lie back down on the stretcher. Elizabeth Mokkonen, a volunteer nurse from Nairobi, confirmed that the bullet had penetrated his brain. Once they had stabilized him, doctors transferred Odhiambo to the operating room.

Volunteer and hospital nurses work together to stabilize Benson Odhiambo in the hallway. (Jennifer Huxta)

“In Kisumu alone, I attended to six gunshot wounds and I saw 14 [of them],” Mokkonen said over the phone a week after the election. Those victims, like Benson Odhiambo, survived. However, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, human rights organizations estimate that at least 67 people have died at the hands of Kenyan police since protests began in August.

“There are other channels to use, not shooting,” Mokkonen said, unable to comprehend the police brutality she had witnessed.

“I never thought I would see it here – bones shattered in bodies. I never thought it could get to that [point].”

According to the intake register at the hospital, by October 26, the second day of clashes in Kisumu, there were 11 victims of gunshot wounds. The bodies of three men who had been killed in the election-related violence – two from gunshot wounds and one from being beaten on the head and neck – were being held at the morgue until their families could come to get them.

A woman mourns outside the morgue in Kisumu, Kenya, where the bodies of men killed in the protests were kept. (Jennifer Huxta)

Beyond the Physical Trauma

As they tended to the injured, the volunteer nurses soon became aware that their patients needed more than physical healing. “With time we realized [people were] not really dealing well with the effects of their gunshot wounds. There’s the trauma of being shot,” Mokkonen said. If someone has been beaten and “their hands aren’t working and they are the breadwinner, they wonder, ‘How will I take care of my kids?’”

So the group enlisted 20 volunteer counselors to help patients and their families cope with the emotional and psychological issues related to trauma.

The nurses are also working with pro bono lawyers and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a Kenyan monitoring organization that investigates claims of police brutality, to gather evidence and find more residents who have been shot or beaten.

In the week after the October vote, six people came forward, one claiming to have been shot by the police and five who had been beaten. But people are still hesitant to present themselves, the nurses say, for fear of being targeted again by the police, whether through intimidation or arrest.

The job takes its toll, said Mokkonen. But she is not deterred. “While I still have the strength, I’ll do what I’m doing.”

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