Traditional rivalries, modern bloodbaths and an army major’s boot.
BY DANIEL WESANGULA
Originally published in the Standard on Sunday on 30th November
Joyce Losute will never give her daughter’s hand in marriage to a Pokot. Even if cupid traverses all the hills and valleys that surround her small homestead in Kapedo and eventually strike her daughter’s heart.
“Siwezi kubali. Afadhali ni kufe kuliko kupeana mtoto wangu kwa wa mPokot,” she says.
Hers is an opinion that has been handed down from generation to generation. And as the years have passed, hate between these two communities only runs deeper.
“Si si hata mtoto akikusumbua unamuambia atulie ama uite mpokot,” she says. And on 31st October she was reminded of a scar she got even before birth.
On that day, suspected Pokot bandits ambushed police officers at Kasarani area of Kapedo in Turkana County killing 21. Among the dead were young officers who had over the past months been not only good customers but also dear friends to Joyce.
After such tragic loss of life, a heavier security presence was needed in the area. Thus, the deployment of not only additional police reinforcement but the military too. With this, the pacification process was well underway. But for some, pacification remains just a word on paper behind which lies the true cost of peace in the volatile Turkana area.
On the night of November 6th, dozens of people were injured, and many more fled leaving behind relatives and their earthly possessions to try and escape with only memories of places they called home. On this night, Chemolingot, a contingent of security forces descended upon this rural town and terrorized the residents.
To some of those who were there then, the damage inflicted on that night will be hard to live through. Florence Cheruto was a sleep with her three children in her one bedroomed house in Chemolingot shopping centre.
“Suddenly we heard screams and a commotion outside. Gunshots rented the air. We were confused… our children were crying… the security officers broke windows and set some houses on fire,” a teary Florence says.
She leaves in a fenced- off plot that has one other house. All window panes on the building remain shattered. The curtain to one of her windows has a huge, blackish hole in the middle.
“This is where they tried to burn the house when we refused to open,” she says. “One officer, after realizing that our house was connected to electricity told the others to stop the burning since it could cause much more damage.”
Meanwhile, across the four metre dirt road that forms the main Kapedo street, her shop was being ransacked. Looted. Pulverized. All the stock she had bought from a bank loan disappeared.
“It was the Administration Police and the General Service Unit policemen,” she says. “We saw them.” To move on, to feed her children, to plan for her children’s education, she was forced to take another loan. For now, her children are away with their grandmother.
“It is safer there,” she says. The perpetrators, she says were mixture for all security agencies in the area.
“My eldest child is in class two. Would he have any business with going to Turkana and robbing people of their cows,” she asks.
At the same time, a posho mill belonging to Assistant County Commander Joshua Akeno of Nginyang was facing a similar fate. What he had looked to as the financial pillar of his family was slowly turning to rubble. The arsonists, he says, drove back to the AP camp in the disturbed stillness of that night. Eventually, when light broke, only iron sheets and the mill’s skeleton stood in defiance.
“Hii ni kama kulipisha kisasi. Sio sisi tuliua wa askari, sijui mbona tunapigwa kiasi hii,” the assistant chief says. His small business fed 20 people.
For him and many others, there is a feeling that the Turkana are being protected by the state too much. The heat that was turned onto the Pokot of Chemolingot and other surrounding areas is being blamed on the Turkana.
“Ma askari wanataka kupiga wa Pokot wote,” he says. Ergo, he did not report the distraction to the police post. The Assistant county commander too, does not trust the local police for fear of being victimized for his tribe.
At Kapedo, the Turkana say the grief visited upon the Pokot during this operation is nothing compared to the years of raids and killings that have been meted on them.
“Mbona hao hawataki kuskia ile uchungu sisi tumeskia… wakipigwa kidogo wanalia. Sisi tunapigwa kila siku,” says Joseph Lokinyang.
Joyce believes the security arrangements in Kapedo just provide a temporary lull.
“Askari wakitoka wa Pokot watatoka huku kwa milima watumalize. Sisi tunangoja tu,” she says. Meanwhile she is moving on with her business. Still serving those who her felled customer called friends and comrades. Almost every evening, they congregate around a table or sit around in low stools and just think about life. Once in a while they call out to Joyce for another round. She owns a bar.
And when Joyce feels like it, she tells the story of how while heavily pregnant with her, her mother was speared in the stomach during one of those routine raids by the Pokot. They both survived assault. They both have scars to remind them of that night.
From whatever side, the existing peace in this volatile region is being held together by strings woven by the General Service Unit, the Administration Police and the Kenya Defence Forces. All these players, including the residents, paying a daily price for the existing peace.
Major Kyalo Muindi , the officer commanding Chesitet camp says everything is going according to plan.
“So far the operation is successful. We are working in support of the National Police Service. We have achieved almost the desired end state which was recovering the stolen firearms. So far it is a success.”
However, there is a ‘but’ in his update.
The major says the main problem is that the residents cannot differentiate between the different security forces on the ground.
“The biggest perception is that KDF and the police are out to hurt the people. We are a professional army and we always work with proper rules of engagements. So whenever anything bad happens, people are quick to associate it with the military,” he says.
There have been accusations of heavy use of explosives by the army.
Major Muindi says the only explosions in the area have been deliberate, in non-populated areas to test whether the artillery within the camp is in working condition.
“None was aimed at the population,” he says. “We are a professional army.”
About 20 kilometres from the major’s base, 17 year-old Alex Kodi walks around with a bunch of friends. They like many of their age mates love football. Their favourite teams are real Madrid and Manchester United.
For now though, a lot more than football weighs their collective conscience.
A few weeks ago, Alex’s younger brother was watching over a herd of around 100 cattle. A lorry drove up the road and parked next to the road. Several other vehicles, including land rovers followed suit and parked on the road. Here, traffic rules seldom apply.
“Then the men in military fatigues in their dozens got off their vehicles and opened fire on the herd,” he says.
When the last cartridge hit the virgin ground, 78 cows lay dead. The little boy who was hiding in nearby trees and witnessed the bloodbath ran home to tell his elders. With him were to other cows with gunshot wounds. They died as the little told his tale.
“Watuambie sisi tumekosea hao nini. Hii ni mali mingi tumepoteza hapa. Na hatujui hata tutaenda shule aje sababu mali yote imepotelea hapa,” he says.
Who killed the cows?
“They were men in police and military uniforms. We do not know whether it was the army or the police or the GSU,” he says. Here, the only line that is clear is that a Land rover represents government. And anyone who emerges from it, by extension, is government. So the conclusion is that their cows were massacred by the government.
In Pokot East, Jacktone Orieng is the government. He is the Assistant County Commissioner, East Pokot. His area of jurisdiction covers over 4500 square kilometres. Under his watch are 27 locations.
“Here the administration is still far from the people. Chiefs man big areas interrupted with hills, valleys and other places that the bandits can hide,” he says.
He has some sort of explanation for the events that led to the burning of his Assistant county commander’s posho mill and the looting of Florence’s shop.
“There was a door to door operation on Chemolingot on 6th November. Some people lost property and others got injured. This operation was done by the police who went around, they were bitter with the loss of the lives of their colleagues and the innocent citizens.,” Orieng’ says.
“During that operation some people were injured, others were lost property and some were arrested and are under investigation.”
He also says some civil servants moved away at this time. We however want to assure them that security is almost back to normal. They should not stay out and keep services away,” he says.
Commanders of the security operation continue to claim little small victories in the hope that these will eventually pile up to win the war.
The government has openly acknowledges the importance of elders and local leaders in this bid to disarm the Pokot and the Turkana communities. But on the other hand, some of these local leaders and elders have unkind words, bad memories and violent experiences from those looking to them for the wisdom to maneuver age-old enmities and volatile geopolitics that demand allegiance from both communities.
Peter Adomong’ura is the chief of Silale division. On 25th night he got a call on the impending visit by the Inspector General of Police. The nest day he set off for the security team rendezvous and along the way he was stopped by a vehicle ferrying three policemen. After a few minutes of asking, both the vehicle and the chief discovered they were heading to the same place. The meeting was to happen at Chesitet.
When they got to the scene, Edomunguran, who was in his official attire was suddenly descended by several police men.
“They asked me to show them where the bodies of the killed GSU officers were. They tore off my badge and broke the crown on my beret…they left me for dead,” he says. “I was saved when the IG’s chopper appeared and attention shifted.” During the beating he lost two phones and Sh600.
For him, the security operation is somehow driving the wedge between these two communities further down and the boots on the ground, though offering some relief, contribute to the ever present tensions between these two communities.,
But solutions are not non- existent.
“For the short term., disarmament all round will do. Long term, education will be the only way. Over 80 percent of the residents here are illiterate. With these illiteracy figures, selling sense to the residents becomes a hard task,” Orieng’ says.
He also adds that the government does not know the exact number of firearms in the wrong hands.
“All we know is that they are many,” he says. “And for now, we are yet to bring the two communities together until the disarmament programme by other agencies is complete.”
For now, Joyce, Florence, Akeno, Kodi, Adomong’ura, Major Muindi and Orieng’ will all have to meet their ends of the peace bill. No matter how high the price.