By Kevin Motaroki
Recent clashes between the Turkana and Pokot have caused deaths of over 100 people and displacement, triggering a humanitarian crisis that even aid agencies admit has been difficult to deal with, not because of its magnitude, but because of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. In Baringo, where inter-communal fighting broke out towards the end of last year, more than 180 civilians have been murdered.
In these regions, locals speak of desperation, terror and death. They cannot farm because there are warriors waiting to attack them in the forests and bushes; they cannot sell or buy; they have no access to medical care, and their children cannot go to school. It is a situation that has forced them to flee to camps, watching in disbelief as their livestock are taken away, their houses razed, their farms plundered and their lives turned upside down.
Residents now fear that the wanton killings may already be out of hand, and are urging government to find a solution as a matter of urgency. For the residents of Kenya’s North Rift, life has come to a standstill. Human rights activist Amos Olempaa describes the dire situation in Baringo due to the building crisis.
“The number of people dead since the killings started is about 200, but we seem to have been deliberately forgotten. We have whole divisions that have been literally deserted. In Mugutani, which is home to about 45,000, there are no people there. They have fled to camps for the internally displaced. Mochongoi Division, in North Baringo, is deserted as well. It is like we have no government…” Olempaa laments.
In these two areas, as is in most places in the county, most economic activity is dead. Over 27 schools have been closed, and teachers have fled. Some of these institutions, those in safer zones, have been converted into IDP camps. “Each school accommodates an average of 500 pupils, meaning that close to 135,000 pupils are out of school.”
But what baffles residents is that the attacks persist even with the deployment of hundreds of security officers.
“The attacks happen barely a hundred metres from the AP and GSU camps, and yet they do nothing, which leads us to wonder what they are doing here. Whenever we ask why the officers don’t track the killers, they often say they are waiting for reinforcements. When will they come?” Olempaa poses.
But the attackers are not just ruthless; they are also brazenly arrogant. After the President toured the area last month, the bandits attacked the following day, in what was seen as a mockery of the State’s capacity to deal with insecurity. The Opposition has said so as well on more than one occasion.
“When I hear the same leaders talk about putting an end to the practice, it sounds nothing more than a joke to me,” says a local. “If government wanted to stop them (the bandits), they could. But until that is done, we are all just dreaming if we think this can be solved through dialogue.”
Another resident identified only as Martha says: “This government will kill us all… Is it not better to die than live with what we are witnessing? These bandits have turned most schools in South Baringo into holding areas for stolen animals. As we speak, more than five schools have been shut down. How are we to educate our children? Our children are dying because we cannot access hospitals, some of which have been burnt down, we cannot farm… it is unacceptable.”
In Turkana, the plot doesn’t deviate. The men lament that they are losing thousands of livestock every week, and cannot go out to find pastures for what they have left; women are afraid to go out to do simple things like collect firewood or fetch water, because the bandits could be waiting at the rivers; and the children, shocked into silence by the horrifying deaths of their siblings and parents, do not play anymore.
“We are under attack day and night. We can’t go anywhere. Venturing out would be certain death. The people are desperate; there is no food, the health centres are shut, our injured are dying. The bandits have been targeting vehicles carrying relief supplies… We don’t know what to do, so we’ll just wait and hope,” narrates Esther Lokitolo.
Esther lost two children and her husband during the Nadome massacre early last month that left more than 80 dead. She did not bury any of them. “We have no business saying we have a government if we are killed and nothing is done about it. The Deputy President promised us during the 2013 campaign that insecurity would be sorted in 100 days; it is now the third year and nothing has been done.”
Last month, Rift Valley Regional Coordinator Osman Warfa admitted that there are over 12,000 illicit arms in the North Rift, confirming a study earlier done by the Small Arms Survey. According to the survey, most of the arms found in Turkana and Pokot regions come from the government, and some from across the border in Ethiopia.
Like in Baringo, politicians have been blamed for the violence in Turkana, a position that government seems to endorse. Speaking at a media briefing event last month, Interior CS Joseph Nkaissery said “someone has to answer for this and invariably it falls down to the area leaders because they should know better… They must take responsibility for the attacks”.
Livestock raids are not a new feature amongst Kenya’s pastoralist tribes. Recently, however, these have become violent as communities take up arms to both attack and defend themselves, which, in turn, triggers organised retaliations. Amongst the factors promoting the violence are profiteering – the raids are a source of livestock to sell – proliferation of weapons, which instils a sense of superiority, and dwindling resources – water and pastures.
After the gunfire dies down and the warriors retreat, it is women who are mostly left to deal with the devastating effects of the violence. 46-year old Esther Ekiru from Lokobat Ward in Turkana County narrates her tribulations.
“The bandits target us because we are mostly unarmed. They despise us; they just point and shoot,” Esther says. “Our men spend the night guarding us and spend the day sleeping. When we have to run errands like fetch water or firewood, that is when we encounter them (bandits)… We are helpless. Recently, it has got worse. Even armed men are afraid of venturing out during the day… We are tired of everything.”
Conflict between the Turkana and Pokot contributes to one of the most visible humanitarian crises in Kenya’s marginalised and largely arid north. Tiaty MP Asman Kamama has warned that the wanton killings in the Suguta Belt region may get out of hand if the government fails to decimate the cattle rustling menace, even as leaders from the two communities trade accusations as to the trigger of the fighting.
Christine Poriot, 24, says she still experiences nightmares from a night in early May when Turkana bandits raided her village just before dawn. More than ten members of the same family were butchered that morning, she says, including children… some could barely walk.
“After they had killed, they stole more than 1000 head of cattle and thousands of goats. Our warriors gave chase and killed more than two dozen of the bandits, who we were told afterwards number over 300. Ms Poriot recalls. “Our little village awoke to death, death everywhere.”
For now, the North continues to bear the brunt of banditry attacks and it appears there is no persuasive solution yet. “Government talks about disarming people, but how do they expect residents to give up arms when that is the only way they can protect themselves? I heard (Interior PS) Joseph Nkaissery talk about forceful disarmament the other day, but I can tell you that that will be equally forcefully resisted,” says a village elder who asks not to be named.
“We have been ignored by successive governments since independence, and to protect ourselves, we need arms. In this region, the only thing a politician needs to do to win elections is give his people guns and ammunition. They have their people who they use to convey the messages and the arms; once that is done, the election is as good as won,” concludes the elder.
“The narrative that it is politicians who fan the violence is true, but it is not just about trading in stolen livestock. It is about the existence of an entire community. You can’t ignore that.”^