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Wiping the tears of Gikomba Victims using teargas

Naman Moranga, a victim of Gikomba fire during an interview with The Standard on July 5, 2018. [David Njaaga, Standard]

The stinging smell of tear gas hangs over Gikomba. Twelve hours after heavily armed police officers chased away the grieving victims of last Thursday’s fire, the last arsenal hurled by the officers is still assaulting the glands that are all cried out.

When The Sunday Standard visited the wasteland, devastated traders were staring at the rubble of building materials they had bought to reconstruct their sheds after the fire and perhaps piece back their lives.

The broken pieces stood by the charred remains of equipment atop deep trenches left behind by the bulldozers which demolished the incomplete structures whose owners had been exiled, momentarily.

The poles and fresh timber contrasted with the soot covered disfigured mahogany lay in piles where they had been tossed by bulldozers which were driven in after the police had chased the victims away.

Although the victims wore brave faces and had even mobilised some money to buy the materials for reconstruction, the government has declared that there will be no reconstruction of the Gikomba furniture workshops on the banks of Nairobi River.

Gikomba Riverside Traders association chairman Onesmus Njuguna said he had learnt that his members were not supposed to rebuild their structures because there were some issues about riparian land and power way leave which had not be resolved. “The county deputy commissioner told me that the government is looking at our issue and was scouting for alternative land. I am confident because the president has talked of looking for permanent solution to our plight,” Mr Njuguna said.

But Nairobi County Commissioner, Amos Mariba said the structures were constructed illegally in the first place and the government was under no obligation to allocate the traders alternative space.

“Two weeks before the inferno, we had given the traders notices to vacate because they were squatting on riparian land. Its unfortunate that the fire broke out. We will not allow them to rebuild the structures. They are illegal,” Mr Mariba explained.

Offices hang precariously

But even as he was talking about the 600 traders documented to have lost their  property to the fire, another set of victims were agonising how to bury the 17 people who lost their relatives.

“I cannot believe the government can be this callous. We have not even buried our kin. Aren’t the officers human?” posed Naman Muranga.

Muranga, a father of two was sitting on a pile of partially burnt mahogany timber he had received from Congo last week. One of his leg’s is resting on a pile of broken timber he had purchased on Wednesday hoping to reconstruct his workshop.

“Sasa nimechanganyikiwa. (I am now confused). I had borrowed Sh50,000 to rebuild this workshop hoping to start all over again. The government has finished me,” he lamented.

As Muranga pondered his next course of action, Joseph Mutiso furiously hammered some nails in what he told us was a foot stool for a customer. Although he had invested over Sh100,000 to buy some electrical tools, all he had was a borrowed hammer and a makeshift bench.

This side of Gikomba has no power and Njuguna cannot even charge his phone forcing the members of his association to look for him physically.

Although the County Commissioner explained that the traders were being evicted because they had encroached on the bank of Nairobi River, behind Mutiso, right in the middle of the waters was a half built concrete wall which was being constructed by Nairobi County government.

Behind the wall three houses which once served as county offices hang precariously after part of the base was washed away by the river.

When asked whether he was aware that there was construction in the river which was being cleaned by the Nairobi regeneration team, Mariba argued that this too will have to be demolished if it was illegal, adding nothing standing in the river course would be spared.

Mariba said the government had commissioned some investigations which had found that to eradicate the numerous fires that plagued the traders at Gikomba, they had to be moved from the area.

The fires, he explained were at times triggered by overloading the power lines and illegal power connections. “Power surges can occur even when people are not using electricity. I am not saying all the fires are caused by power but there is a high possibility,” he added.

But a number of traders who talked to us in confidence for fear of reprisals said they were convinced last week’s fire was started to make them vacate the area, as there were too many forces who wanted them out of the area.

“There is a certain watchman who holds the key to all these stores. When I came to my workshop, I found that some of the highly priced furniture were missing and I think somebody could have stolen valuables from the stores before setting off the fire,” said one of the affected traders.

The shadowy watchman, the traders said was so powerful that he ran a money lending racket where he controlled a large number of watchmen whom he had recruited.

According to the traders, the main suspect derived his riches not from the Sh200 paid by every trader daily but had  several business and has connections with long distance trucks which he uses to ferry contraband goods.

Most traders brushed off questions about the whereabouts of the guards who were on duty on the fateful night, claiming that the the topic was too hot to be discussed in public.

The traders said that now that they had been forbidden from constructing any sheds, they were now exposed to the elements and wondered what would happen in the event it rained.

They will have to wait for the government to generate a budget to finance the construction of a modern market where the traders can be accommodated. In the meantime, the government is exploring the possibilities of shifting some of the traders to other areas within the city.

Although Njuguna says he has 250 members out of the estimated 5,000 traders in the area, the County Commissioner said they had recorded 600 victims and 20 buildings affected by the fire.