Why Turkana residents cross fingers when August sets in

Turkana fishermen prepare for a fishing expedition in Lake Turkana. Last week, four fishermen were abducted by Merille militia and it is suspected they were killed. [PHOTOS: LUCAS NG’ASIKE/STANDARD]


Turkana, Kenya: August is a dreaded month among many fishermen in Turkana. They fear venturing into Lake Turkana, which is one of the world’s rarest desert lake, and is home to nutritious and abundant fish stocks.

But inside the lake, especially in August, death lurks, thanks to foreign militia from neighbouring Ethiopia.

The militia group from Merille community in Ethiopia raids fishermen mostly in August.

During the month, newly circumcised Merille youth are required to kill people from an ‘enemy community’ and bring back their private parts as a sign of heroism.

Both Merille and Turkana live on the border of their two countries. They have staged attacks against each other for years with the worst one being in 2011, which left over 60 Turkana men, women and children dead.

Turkana North OCPD Bernard Nyakwaka said during the 2011 massacre, they recovered bodies that had missing private parts.

“Men are targeted most for mutilation of their private parts and this happens in attacks in August,” he told The Standard.

During the attacks, many locals have been abducted and killed and their bodies are hardly recovered.

Old way of life

Ethiopian elder Lotikori Yarakal confirmed that August marks the season when young men among the Merille graduate into manhood.

“They congregate around River Omo (in Ethiopia) where they are circumcised and conditions set before they graduate to become men,” he said.

Yarakal, who refused to be photographed for this story, said the Merille are still steeped in tradition and old way of life.

“One of the mandatory requirement is that they go out and kill their ‘enemies’ and bring back their private parts,” he said. Yarakal also said the new initiates are required to steal from their victims by raiding villages for livestock.

“They arm themselves to the teeth and plan before staging a surprise attack on land or in the lake,” he revealed.

Yarakal said abducting the ‘enemy’ is a plus for the youth but when time does not allow, they kill and leave the bodies but chop off private parts and disappear with them.

On August 1, the Merille militia struck, abducting four Turkana fishermen, who are now feared dead. The fishermen, who doubled up as Kenya Police Reservists, were attacked and abducted in Lake Turkana waters as they fished.

Turkana North DC Erick Wanyonyi said a search for the fishermen has been futile, expressing fear they may have been killed and their bodies thrown into the lake.

The DC said the assailants from the Merille tribe seized the boat and fishing gear belonging to the fishermen and towed them to Ethiopia.

Elder Eleman Osman is among many Turkana families that have lost their kin in barbaric acts by Merille at the border.

The militia usually strikes Todonyang, Kokuro, Liwan and Kibish border points manned by few security personnel.

“Apart from being outnumbered by the militia, the Kenyan security forces also fear the Merille because they are fearless and brutal,” said Osman.

He said he had lost cousins, who were attacked by Merille four years ago and their bodies found with missing private parts.

“We were even lucky to get the bodies. Some are never recovered because the militia either leave them in bushes for wild animals to devour or throw them into the lake for crocodiles to eat,” said Osman.

He added that the community is always on high alert every August and keep off the lake for fear of the dreaded militia.

“No one is safe. The police reservists, who were abducted, had guns, but they were still abducted and possibly killed. We need Government to do something to end these senseless killings,” said Osman. He added the Turkana community had not only lost lives but livestock, boats and fishing gears to the militia.

The over 60 Turkana locals were killed after they were tricked into crossing to Ethiopia to get food following drought on the Kenyan side. Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga toured the area and ordered security enhanced at the border.

However, this was not implemented. The militia are still perpetrating attacks with locals now calling on the Government to deploy the military at the border.

An Ethiopian source said militiamen who kill are asked to choose beautiful girls to marry.

They get the girls after showing private parts of those they killed. Turkana leaders have condemned the long-standing assault by the militia and are now calling on the international community to intervene.

The leaders, among them Turkana Senator John Munyes and Turkana North MP Christopher Nakuleu described the killings as illegal human sacrifices.

“They are not only barbaric acts but are gross human rights violations by the militia group, which must be held accountable,” said Munyes.

The two leaders also condemned the recent abduction of four fishermen at Kanamkuny beach in Todonyang, along Lake Turkana.

Munyes said he had also raised concerns with the Ethiopian authorities, asking them to restrain the Merille militia from perpetrating the killings.

“We can no longer tolerate such dehumanising acts. We will petition the international community through the United Nations to stop these atrocities,” he said.

“This is an illegal cultural practice and act of human rights violation, which should not be condoned by governments in States that enjoy cordial diplomatic relationship,” he added.

Nakuleu further blamed Government for laxity to ensure adequate security at its borders to prevent such aggression.

“Why are people killed this way and the Government is mum about it? It must wake up from its slumber and protect its people,” he said.

The MP said if State has failed to secure the border from incursion, it should arm locals to defend themselves.

The legislator said they have organised consultative meetings with Ethiopian authorities to address the escalating insecurity along the Kenya-Ethiopia border.

On Sunday, a Kenyan security team went to Ethiopia’s Omorate border district to protest over the abduction of the four Kenya fishermen.

Wanyonyi said they met Ethiopian security team and demanded an explanation as to why the militias were allowed to cross the border to kill fishermen. He said Kenya and Ethiopia are not at war but the militia action was straining relationship between the two countries.

The administrator added that the Ethiopian authorities said they had recovered a boat the militia had stolen from the fishermen but had not found the fishermen.

Ethiopia’s Omorate DO Chumere Yerar said that the Ethiopian government was committed to addressing the Merille and Turkana conflicts along the common borders.

The Ethiopian DO said pastoralists have no boundaries when it comes to sharing of resources, but added that a solution must be found to ensure the two warring communities coexist peacefully.