Fire that reduced millions to ashes

By Abdikadir Sugow

GARISSA, KENYA: “We are destitute,” a trader at Garissa Town’s only open-air market says as his toe digs into the debris after the market was razed down recently.

The market was burnt after days of military operation to flush out criminals who had killed three soldiers as they were changing a flat tyre on November 19.

This operation sparked off riots by locals, who said the community was being unfairly accused of harbouring criminals associated with the Somalia Al Shabaab militia.

When the operation ended, two people were dead and several others injured. The market that was gushing with activity was smouldering.

The market, Suuq-Muqdi or ‘the unlighted market’, was a source of livelihood for many.

Haretho Abdi Bare, who is nursing bullet wounds at the Garissa General Hospital after she was shot on her left thigh, had a large silo of fresh farm produce.

Usually she directly bought the produce from local farmers and sold wholesale to other traders.
It went up in flames alongside other businesses at the market.

Start from zero

When her physical pain is over and she is discharged from hospital, Haretho will have to start from zero to rebuild her business.

Haretho’s son, Salah Yakub Farah, says his mother lost business worth Sh2.5 million, which included the structure holding her merchandise.

She is not the only one counting losses.

Maua Posho millers lost goods valued at Sh100 million in the fire.

Staff at the mill say they pleaded with the arsonists, whom they claim were military officers, to spare their business in vain.

“They burnt all our products. We will sue the Government for compensation,” says Ali Noor Issack, whose fast food kiosk was was reduced to ashes.

Ali, who was operating a fast food kiosk, says he lost capital base of Sh315,000.

Ali says he did not salvage anything, as the fire was too fierce to get closer.

It is not exactly clear who burnt the market. Some eyewitnesses accuse the military claiming they lobbed fire canisters into the market, which caused the fire at midday while others claim a certain politician set the place ablaze long after the operation was over.

Yet, there are also claims of business rivals having lit the market and used the ongoing operation as a cover up.
However, the military has denied being behind the arson.

Spokesman Col Cyrus Oguna termed the accusation as malicious and lies crafted to taint the credibility of the force.

“Allegations suggesting KDF committed atrocities in Garissa are false and must cease,”said Col Oguna.
Whoever caused the fire at the market pierced locals’ hearts as the market was the centre of business in the town.
People bought their foodstuff  there and it was a source of employment for many others.
Some traders don’t bank their money. Instead, they keep it at the market.

Burnt in safe

One trader acted as a ‘banker’ who held money in custody for other traders. Market chairman, Paul Chege says Sh150,000 was burnt in her ‘safe’.

Several have reported reported that their national IDs were burnt in the fire, which raged for two days.
It destroyed the market structure which is estimated to be worth more than Sh200 million.

According to Chege, some 1,800 traders were adversely affected. Most of them ran fresh farm produce, groceries, cereals, clothes, electronics and restaurant businesses.

Chege, who has done business at the market for 15 years, says there is no sign that the Government is willing to help these traders rebuild their lives despite PM Raila Odinga visiting the affected last Friday and asking ministry for Special Programmes to compensate the traders.

The following day, the minister for Special Programmes Esther Murugi said the Government has no policy to compensate victims of riots and clashes.

Garissa mayor, Ismail Mohamed Garat Korio whose elective ward includes the burnt market, said the locals are still waiting for justice.