Va. Peace Corps Worker Details Perils in Kenya

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 5, 2008

The men on the side of the road gripped machetes as Fauquier County native Gillie Kehoe and fellow Peace Corps volunteers passed in two pickups, zigzagging around charred cars on the way out of a village near Kisumu, Kenya.

It was New Year's Day, and ethnically charged violence was spreading quickly across the country amid accusations that the presidential election was rigged. The eight-kilometer drive to promised safety for Kehoe and the others might have taken 10 or 30 minutes.

But "it felt like forever," Kehoe, 26, said in a phone interview yesterday. A man guided the trucks, yelling his political allegiance to ensure the travelers' safety. Even so, a man swiped the front of one truck with a machete.

"Had he not been there, I think they would have overtaken the car," Kehoe said of her guide. "The men on side of the road . . . they were just idle. It's like they were waiting for something to happen."

By yesterday, Kehoe and other volunteers were out of Kenya, away from the carnage that began when President Mwai Kibaki won reelection. Peace Corps officials said 34 volunteers who were working in three western provinces would be temporarily moved to neighboring Tanzania.

The Peace Corps has 144 volunteers in Kenya, 122 of whom were in the country when the unrest began, officials said. All of the volunteers have been accounted for and are safe, officials said.

Safety and security are the top priorities of the Peace Corps, Amanda Beck, a spokeswoman, said yesterday, adding that the organization has emergency plans for every country and that they were engaged for Kenya. "Our plan is working. Everyone is safe and out of harm's way," she said.

All of the organization's volunteers in Kenya have a cellphone and texting capabilities and were encouraged to contact their families, Beck said. The Peace Corps also checked on them twice a day, she said.

"We were very closely monitoring the situation," Beck said. "I don't think anyone could have really anticipated what happened and the scale of what happened."

Kehoe, reached on her cellphone, said she and about eight others had gone to the rain forest to celebrate Christmas, fully expecting the election to go well. When they realized it hadn't, they went to another Peace Corps volunteer's house in a village outside Kisumu.

Within five minutes after Kibaki had been sworn in, "we started hearing screaming," said Kehoe, a graduate of Fauquier High School.

She said they remained in the house, leaving once to buy vegetables. They turned back quickly after hearing that people down the road were being beaten. They passed the next few days rationing food, making pancakes without eggs and taking turns sleeping on the limited number of beds.

"Overall, it was boredom maybe punctuated by a few moments of 'Oh my God,' " Kehoe said. "It was a lot of uncertainty. It was not knowing how much food we could eat today. We didn't know how long we would be stuck."

On New Year's, the group went to an area occupied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where they stayed until leaving the country yesterday. Kehoe's mother, Ann Kehoe, who admittedly was more worried than her daughter, said she called her from their home in Warrenton.

"She said, 'We're here.' I couldn't hear her after that, but that was okay," Ann Kehoe said. "I'm a happy mom."

She said she has gotten through the week with a lot of prayer. She would not allow herself to think of worst-case scenarios for her daughter, who attended Virginia Tech for three years before transferring to George Mason University to get a nursing degree.

"I just wouldn't go there; that's just a dangerous place for my mind to go," she said.

Gillie Kehoe is not sure how she feels about returning to Kenya. There were good, if small, moments that etched themselves into her mind before the violence: being greeted by 20 people as she walked to the market and practicing language skills with a 4-year-old who knew as much English as Kehoe knew Swahili.

"It's sad. They have completely demolished probably 10 years of progress," Kehoe said. "I hope Kenya can sort this out without more unnecessary violence. I know they have it in them to be peaceful and diplomatic and follow the rules."

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