Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Population

RIGHTS-KENYA: In the Aftermath of a Massacre

Darren Taylor

NAIROBI, Jul 28 2005 (IPS) - He describes himself as an old man, and one ignorant of many things in life – especially "women and the ways of Waq (God)". But Huka Kanchoro, a wizened Borana elder, knows that he holds a position of influence in the northern Kenyan district of Marsabit.

Huka Kanchoro, at his waterhole in Marsabit district. Credit: Darren Taylor

Huka Kanchoro, at his waterhole in Marsabit district. Credit: Darren Taylor

The reason? In the unforgiving desert that stretches across this part of the country, a region where drought and famine are ever-present, Kanchoro controls the only reliable water source within a radius of 60 kilometres.

"I dug this well with my bare hands, many years ago," he says, grimacing in recollection.

The waterhole is located on Saku (green) mountain, and until recently it served as a gathering place for the various ethnic groups that inhabit this part of Kenya: the Rendille, Borana, Gabra and Turkana.

But, things have changed.

"I am happy to give people the water," says Kanchoro. "But…now, we are only the Borana here. The others are gone, especially our brothers and sisters, the Gabra – they have disappeared. Everyone is living in fear because of what happened at Turbi."

The incident in question took place Jul. 12, when almost 100 Gabra villagers, mostly women and children, were killed at the Turbi settlement in Marsabit by Borana tribesmen.

It has been referred to as the deadliest instance of ethnic violence since Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963. But Kanchoro remembers many such massacres down the years, when "hundreds of people were butchered like goats".

Survivors of the Turbi massacre say hundreds of men armed with an assortment of weapons, ranging from AK-47s and grenades to machetes and spears, descended on the village with the aim of slaughtering as many people as possible.

"I heard them tell one another, ‘Let us kill all these Gabra dogs’," says Jillo Mamo.

Another survivor, Hussein Odaa, stutters as he describes the event. "The Borana attacked us because they want our grazing and the little water we have. They want us out because this place is more fertile than their land."

Ironically, the Gabra and Borana have often been allies in the past, joining forces against rival ethnic groups in the battle over scare resources. The tribes share the same culture, that of the Oromo peoples of neighbouring Ethiopia, and speak the same language.

"The only difference between us, really, is that we Borana love cattle while the Gabra are camel people," says Mohammed Abdi, standing amongst his prized short-horn bulls as they graze in a withered field near Marsabit Town.

But the bloodbath at Turbi has dealt these allegiances a severe blow.

At the Saku waterhole, the fear is palpable. Women huddle in small groups, their eyes shifting nervously at the approach of strangers. The people talk in whispers. There is no laughter.

"We are afraid that the Gabra are going to find us here to take revenge," says Adan Hurri. "We want to tell them we are sorry for what happened at Turbi. If it was Boranas that did that, it is shameful…But please, they must know: it was not all Boranas that did this terrible thing."

The anxiety on the green mountain is well-founded. As news of the Turbi killings spread, a mob of furious Gabras hauled 10 Boranas out of a vehicle driven by a Catholic priest and hacked them to death with machetes.

Some, like Bonaya Godana – the member of parliament for the constituency where the Turbi massacre took place – have blamed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) rebels from Ethiopia for the killings.

"This was too well organized to have been (perpetrated by) a bunch of cattle raiders. These people had sophisticated weapons, and the attack was planned with military precision," he said. "It is well-known that the OLF have been angry that our Gabra do not wish to join their fight."

The OLF launched a guerilla war against the government of Ethiopia in 1993, in an effort to achieve autonomy for Oromo peoples in the south of the country. These include members of the Gabra and Borana clans, which straddle the border with northern Kenya.

While little hard evidence has been presented in support of Godana’s claims, Paul Goldsmith, an anthropologist who studies ethnic groups of Kenya, is reluctant to dismiss them.

Prior to the incident, he says, Kenyan Gabra were accused of supporting the Addis Ababa government. This sparked attacks by Boranas, who are sympathetic to the OLF cause, on Gabra settlements. The Gabras then retaliated, setting the stage for the brutal events at Turbi.

"Many Boranas join the OLF because they do not consider themselves to be Kenyans, even though this is supposed to be Kenya!" exclaims Dima Guyo, who describes himself as an OLF "facilitator" in northern Kenya. "Because they are related to the Oromos in Ethiopia, the people here have more in common with the struggle of the OLF than with what is happening in Nairobi."

Government spokesman Alfred Mutua refuses to entertain this theory, however. "This is an internal matter and we shouldn’t look elsewhere to place the blame," he notes.

An OLF representative, Fido Ebba, also rejects the claims.

"We are not responsible in any way for what happened at Turbi," he told IPS. "Our fight is with Zenawi’s murderous regime and his security forces, not with any group of Kenyan people – be they Gabra, or whatever."

Ebba also denies that the OLF is recruiting Kenyans to its ranks: "The OLF’s fight is an Ethiopian fight…While it is our view that the Kenyan Oromos are our brothers, we respect Kenya’s sovereignty and do not wish to involve any part of Kenya in our war."

For others, the true reason for the Turbi massacre can be found in the lack of development that characterizes northern Kenya.

After independence, the country’s new authorities took their lead from the colonial administrators, severely neglecting the region.

The hospital in Marsabit Town is managed by a solitary doctor who serves hundreds of thousands of people. There are few telephone lines, no electricity – and the roads, where they exist, are in a state of utter disrepair.

As a result, the people here feel disconnected from the rest of the country. Inhabitants approach visitors to ask "How is Kenya?", in poignant proof of the gulf that separates them from the world to the south.

"We feel like we are exiles in our own country," says Abiduba Arero, a Pentecostal pastor in Marsabit Town.

Similar words come from Guyo: "The government sees the productivity of this area as nil. So, if we are not contributing to the economy, then why should they care about us?"

Just as development has been neglected, so too have ethnic tensions in the area: while armoured vehicles and heavily armed soldiers now patrol in a belated response to the Turbi killings, they will not be stationed there permanently.

Instead of maintaining a significant presence of security forces in the strife-torn region, government has stationed locals known as "home guards" there, and given them rudimentary weapons.

"We only have these rifles, which fire one shot at a time," says one of the guards, Bararo Boi. "How can we fight the raiders, who have AK-47s?"

Three weeks before the Turbi incident, clerics in the region and MPs from northern Kenya warned that tensions between clans were running high. Again, the government in Nairobi looked the other way.

For Arero, this indifference reflects the fact that local officials often have no links to the area. "These people are mostly from other tribes, like the Kikuyus. They don’t understand our way of life here," he says.

President Mwai Kibaki, who took over from long-time ruler Daniel arap Moi at the end of 2002, visited northern Kenya earlier this year, promising change.

His minister of roads, public works and housing, Raila Odinga, also undertook to tar the 500 kilometre road from Isiolo in central Kenya to Moyale on the Ethiopia border – something that would have given the people of northern Kenya a much-needed link to the rest of their country.

However, little faith is being put in the words of either Kibaki or Odinga.

"How can we believe?" asks a villager at the Laisamis trading post. "When Odinga visited us here he came in an aircraft; he did not travel on the road for even a short distance so that he could feel our pain. He just came to talk, and nothing happened after he left – nothing!"

"No, that is not true: something did happen!" says another trader, who sells wood from a pile stacked in the dust. "The road, it became worse."

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