For one year now, residents of Mandongoi, Mwanzele and Kasiluni areas in Kitui County near the border of Tana River County have not known peace, as they endure constant attacks by pastoralists.
Every so often, armed herders from Tana River, Garissa, Wajir and Mandera counties cross over to Kitui with thousands of their livestock in search of pasture, attack the poor farmers, and leave a trail of death, injuries and destruction.
In the past year alone, 33 people have been killed, some in the most cruel of ways. Other than being shot at, some, especially men, are beheaded with pangas and their heads carted away.
The latest attack happened a week ago when three men were ambushed and brutally killed. Two of them were shot dead while grazing livestock while the third one was attacked at his farm and decapitated.
Kavani chief Timothy Kimwele says residents now live in fear because the heavily armed herders strike unexpectedly. Close to 1,000 families have been displaced from their homes and are camping in the bushes in deplorable conditions.
Following the rampant banditry attacks, which are fuelled by competition for water and grazing fields, some schools in the area have closed down as children, parents and teachers flee for dear lives. At Mandongoi Primary School in Mwingi North Sub-county, which lies within the ‘killing zone’ where bandits lay siege at will, all the 450 pupils have been withdrawn from school by their parents.
“You can see for yourselves. There is no learning going on since parents have withdrawn their children for fear of attacks,” says headteacher Justus Mbiti.
Mbiti is a worried man that unless security in the area is improved, the children’s future remains in jeopardy.
“There is no month that goes by without fatal attacks, but lately the attacks have been more sustained, that is why all pupils have fled. We are not safe and urge the government to permanently address this recurrent menace,” Mbiti pleads.
He says over the years, the government has remained mum over the area’s security, especially with the construction of a police post at Mandongoi trading centre in 2009 but which to date has no officers.
The school is also highly understaffed, with only four teachers employed by the Teachers Service Commission.
The nearest police station is at Ngomeni, 32km away and Kasiluni AP camp, which is 28 kilometres away from here, making the school and surrounding community vulnerable to attacks.
On an ordinary school day at Inyanzae Primary School, there would be a cacophony of cheerful noises as children play. But the Sunday Standard team was greeted by dead silence from empty structures.
Just like at Mandongoi, here all the pupils had fled for their safety. A few kilometres away, we catch up with Gideon Mwendwa, a parent in the school. “I am very bitter because my children are not attending school due to insecurity. It is like the government is asleep,” laments Mwendwa.
He says children and women are camping in forests where they are exposed to all manner of dangers, including diseases and snake bites.
“There is need for a serious intervention from the government. We can’t go on like this, we will not allow our children in school for them to be killed,” says Mwendwa, adding that some pregnant women deliver in the bush. Other schools affected are Katunguu, Kasiluni, Mang’ulu, Museveseveni, Makuelende, Katilinge, Kalumu, Kiangini and Kyenini primary schools.
At Kavingo forested area, we find Beatrice Mwaniki, one of the people displaced from Kanyonyi and have been camping in the bushes for slightly over a month.
“The herders have kicked us out of our homes and we have nowhere else to go. Getting food here is a challenge since our granaries were torched and crops in the farm destroyed by camels,” says Mwaniki.
She says in Kanyonyi, the soils are fertile and with little rains, the locals used to get bumper harvests. But not any more as the pastoralists with hundreds of animals, mainly camels, overran the place and erected manyattas.
The mother of four says the armed herders slither into the bushes whenever they hear sounds of patrolling police cars, only to creep back out to tease and terrorise the residents.
“They have warned us that they will take over this area. We wonder why the government has neglected us for so long,” says Mwaniki, appealing to the government and aid agencies to provide them with food.