By Paul Gitau, Lena Benyawa and Cyrus Ombati
At least 62 people, including 11 children and women, were massacred Tuesday night in Tana River and Mandera counties as the rest of the country and its security machinery slept.
The shocking killings that should stir the conscience of the nation and which included slashing of at least 300 cattle and in some cases burning of houses with the occupants inside were largely about pasture and water.
In Tana River, from where the Government has been getting worrying signs of imminent inter-ethnic bloodbath, 52 people were hacked to death or burnt alive, among them 11 children and 31 women. Some 100 houses were reduced to ashes, 300 head of cattle killed, and 1,000 people displaced in the Pokomo retaliation attack on the Orma.
It was here that in 2002 at least 100 people were butchered in the perennial Pokomo-Orma clashes over pastoralist and farming rivalry.
As President Kibaki last evening condoled with the bereaved and vowed stern action would be taken against the perpetrators of the two separate crimes. The question why the security team did nothing to forestall the attacks despite obvious signs a bloodbath rang loudly across the country.
Those who visited the scene of Tana River killings described scenes as similar to mass murders of the Great Lakes region, with mutilated bodies of children and women, old and young, strewn across homesteads, their blood caked on the ground, and flies flying all over.
The bodies of the children, killed while too young to even know what was happening, and why adults were on a killing spree, were particularly horrifying. It was a statement on the ferocity and senselessness of the rivalry between the two communities that share one common denominator – grinding rivalry.
The bodies of those killed in competition for scarce pasture and water were taken to a mosque in the remote Rekite village in the Tana Delta. Horrified residents reported raiders descended on their village with blazing guns, machetes and fire to burn, kill, and pillage.
The Standard reporters and aid workers at the scene described the scorched village 120km south of Hola, the county’s capital, of terrified villagers and a strong smell of human and animal flesh hanging around empty hulks of what until Wednesday was a thriving settlement of pastoralists.
“I have counted 40 corpses in the local mosque,” said a witness, who identified himself only as Bante. Bante said many of the victims had machete wounds on the head, limbs, and necks.
Rescue efforts and deployment of security officers has been hampered by the region’s inaccessibility because of the flooding of River Tana.
In Mandera County, six more people were killed on Tuesday night at Rhamu – a day after five others were slaughtered in Jaraqo, Banisa. A crack of automatic gunfire disturbed the calm at dusk, as residents in the border town were coming from evening prayers. When the guns fell silent, among those who lay dead were a prominent Imam and Mu’azin, a person who calls Muslim faithful to the prayers.
Victims from the two counties, which are 660km apart, probably had one cry: Where was the Government whose duty is to protect lives when they were being mowed down by bullets and slashed with machetes?
In both incidents, there had been a build-up to the conflict. It was evident it was only a matter of time before a retaliatory bloodbath occurred. Authorities termed the recent massacres as “revenge attacks” which is an admission they, too, were not aware earlier spate of attacks could spark deadlier confrontation.
In Tana River the villagers and Government officials were still clueless as to the identity of the attackers only saying they came in military formation, with red bandanas and attacked in military formation. “There was a group with guns whose role was to surround the village. They opened fire to startle and awaken the villagers. The second group attacked, while a third group burnt houses and property,” claimed a survivor, Hassen Hante.
In Tana River an unknown number were injured and 60 cows were slashed to death. The injured were rushed to Witu Hospital.
Coast Deputy Police boss Robert Kitur earlier said his team had counted 48 bodies. The Kenya Red Cross, however, estimated 50 had been killed. But later in the day, two more died in hospital. There were fears the death toll could rise as Kitur said many others were missing.
At the end of the two-hour pillage three girls of marriage age were missing, according to survivors, apparently captured by raiders as booty.
“The deaths occurred when the Pokomo attacked the Orma. It is a bad scene and officers have been dispatched there to ensure no more deaths and destruction of property,” said Kitur.
Police said the clashes started after some members of the Pokomo community attacked the Orma.
The Pokomo are agriculturists and farm along the River Tana, which is the only source of water for animals of the Orma, who are pastoralists. The Pokomo complain the Orma’s animals destroy their crops while the Orma blame their neighbours of blocking access to the river. That is why the Pokomo have no problem hacking their animals – their treasured resource, whose killing is a taboo and ultimate insult.
Garsen MP Danson Mungatana, whose area the killings took place, explained for some time the two communities had been having frequent revenge attacks. “There have been problems simmering for a while. About 10 days ago three Pokomo men were killed by the Orma community,” he explained.
Assistant Commissioner of Police Angelus Karuru led a security operation in the area as tension remained high. “It was a massacre. We are shocked because bodies are lying on the ground. They even killed animals,” claimed a local resident. Police headquarters said contingents of police had been deployed to the area.
Last week three villagers were killed and six injured after Orma herdsmen attacked Pokomo villagers. Cattle owned by the Orma had strayed into Pokomo farmlands and destroyed crops. The farmers in turn attacked the herdsmen and slashed their animals, which police said were 200, but villagers put at 300.
Coast police chief Aggrey Adoli and Regional Commissioner Peter Kilel visited the area. In the latest wave of violence, which started around August 3, five people were killed in a week. The first killing was blamed on farmers, while the epicentre of the August 13 clashes was Kilelengwani village in Kipini.
Kenya Red Cross society Mandera branch co-ordinator Ahmed Abdi said several villages along the Mandera-Takaba route are deserted after panicky villagers fled to safer zones.
“Hundreds have been displaced by the fighting, but we have so far reunited dozens of families, and we will continue tracking missing persons”, Abdi told The Standard.
Mandera County Commissioner Micheal ole Tialal said the raiders were on a mission targeting members of a particular community.
“I wonder why the Government has failed to bring peace to the area as we continue to see lives being lost, while it has the machinery to end the clashes,” asked Tana River County Council chairman Salim Golo Gure.