First on scene! Telling stories about the pain of others and living with the consequences

Dr Robert John Ouko. He was murdered and his body was dumped at the foot of Got Alila in Muhoroni, Kisumu County. [File, Standard]

A dreadful silence engulfed the hall. All eyes had turned to the still film projecting images of the crime scene. The scorched skull. The broken and roasted hands with jutting skeletal fingers.

The sharp bones thrusting through a burnt torso and thick black ash. A tear turned into a trickle, then a flood. People wept. Justice Johnson Evans Gicheru, the chair of the Ouko Commission of Inquiry, who was himself battling tears, cleared his throat and demanded total silence.

I fiercely fought back tears. What had moved the audience at the Kisumu Municipal Hall into weeping were mere photos. Pictures of what I had witnessed live. The memory had kept me awake for months. My nights were nightmarish. I dreaded going home. I would sit in the pub for hours talking and whispering to my beer bottle, then, intoxicated, I would go home in search of elusive sleep.

Whenever I opened the door to my house in Kisumu's Migosi estate, I would see the grotesque remains of Dr Robert John Ouko lying on the floor. The Foreign Affairs minister had been murdered and his body dumped at the foot of Got Alila in Muhoroni Kisumu County. The killers then dosed the body with diesel and set it ablaze.

On the day that I saw the body, the Kisumu Officer Commanding Police Division (OCPD) Emmanuel Mwachiti assaulted me. He hit me with a truncheon, opening up a bloody gush on my face. He didn't want me at the scene. With a bandaged face, I would visit the scene every day to get a follow-up story. When President Daniel Moi appointed the Scotland Yard detectives to probe the assassination, I visited the scene daily to observe and interview detectives at work.

Snakes and animals

British detective John HB Troop would at times give me a lift to Kisumu town. I encountered many challenges. The Nation Newspapers didn't have an official vehicle at the Kisumu bureau. I would seek lifts from rival Kenya Times journalists or from my friend Noel Okoth, at The Standard Newspaper. Otherwise, I simply walked from Muhoroni to Got Alila. There were days I encountered snakes and other wild animals on the footpath. With my pen and notebook, all I could do was stand still, hold my breath and pray. Covering the Ouko murder came with a bucket full of obstacles. Kenya was still under the authoritarian grip of the ruling party Kanu. Kanu considered journalists from the Nation and Standard as enemies of the State.

My story in the Sunday Nation, The Horror that was Ouko's body, killed the government suicide narrative. My description of the Ouko murder scene annoyed the regime. I started getting life-threatening calls through the office landline. Callers would say that my English would get me killed like Ouko. In those days when people would disappear without a trace, never to be found, strange men trailed me daily. I was traumatised.

Today, I empathise with the journalists covering the Shakahola mass murders. I shudder at the pain, agony and emotional drain of watching as the spades and shovels hit the ground and out comes, one, two, to dozens of corpses. When the Shakahola mass murder story gained steam, I was buried deep inside a Media Council of Kenya (MCK), assignment.

As one of the judges in the Annual Journalism Excellence Awards (AJEA), I was locked up in a hotel room for days, ploughing through acres of print, radio, television and digital stories. Some of them were so traumatising to read, watch or listen to. They left some us in tears. The reporters and camerapersons must be in need of counseling. How I wish I had AJEA in my time, many of the stories that gave me grief would have been award winners. The only advantage journalists have today, is access to trauma counselling. The only counsellor I had was my beer or brandy. The deeper I sunk into depression, the more I imbibed.

Journalists are among the most traumatised professionals. Like doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers, journalists are neglected and taken for granted. For decades, Kenyan journalists have endured a lot; from torture by State apparatus to harassment by politicians. They frequently cover road carnage, horrific murders, demonstrations and riots. Such assignments have a major toll on their mental health. The Covid 19 pandemic didn't spare them. Many were laid off; others simply broke down.

The Standard Group received 12 prizes at the 2023 Annual Journalism Excellence Accolades (AJEA). [David Gichuru, Standard]

The MCK, State of the Mental Health in Kenyan Media report published in November 2021 says that: "Journalists have been exposed to work-related trauma, the effects of covering traumatic events over a long period of time, can have negative effects on journalists themselves."

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says that: "Before Covid, journalists were already dealing with a "perfect storm", of factors that challenged their mental health. They battled job insecurity, economic crisis of media and higher polarisation of media to growing attacks from elected officials against journalists."

Today, I share the plight of journalists through my story. I have never forgotten my initial journalism voyage in Garissa under the Kenya News Agency (KNA). It was baptism by fire. Surviving the dreaded Shifta attacks, covering frequent murders sparked by Somali family or clan feuds, telling tales of drought and at times floods, whenever the Tana River became furious in the neihbouring Madogo area and documenting the Kenya-Somalia cross-border skirmishes. Then one night it happened. Armed bandits raided the residence of the Provincial Commissioner (PC).

I was lying in my bed relaxing away the night when gunfire startled me. Some bullets tore through the door of my single room. Being a young, courageous and curious reporter, I quickly put on my shirt and crawled out to investigate the shootings. I came across two administration police officers who were my friends. They told me they were repulsing bandits who had attacked the residence of the provincial commissioner. I joined them in the battle.

After about five hours of gunfire, four policemen and six bandits lay dead. I went to bed shaken and in tears. Early morning, the District Commissioner summoned KNA reporters to his office.

"Last night one of our land rovers had mechanical problems and it backfired. It sounded like gunfire. I wish to assure Wananchi that Garissa is a very peaceful town." He said without batting an eye lid. I was angry. I sneaked out of the office to one of the three telephone booths in town and called the Nation Newspaper Newsroom. Editor Mutegi Njau received my call. After listening to my story pitch, he asked me to make a reverse call request through the post office. He gave me someone to take my story.

Military chopper

Gunfire rocks Garissa town; read the Daily Nation headline the following day. For the first time, the newspaper had reached Garissa on the same day. Normally, we would get the newspaper after two or three days depending on the state of the road. However, President Moi had seen the story which the administration in Garissa believed had died. On that Friday, papers were delivered in a military helicopter.

An angry PC ordered closure of all businesses. Citizens were herded to a forced public rally. The PC Amos Bore condemned the press for being unpatriotic and threatened them with fire. The following day Moi told a rally in Nanyuki that some journalists in Garissa had written lies to shame the government: "They are telling lies and exposing their mother's nakedness," he fumed.

That night, my door flew open from kicks by Special Branch officers. I was picked up from my bed in my birthday suit and thrown into a filthy police cell. I was incarcerated and tortured for weeks. The police demanded to know which policemen I was quoting in the article. For weeks I was beaten. My private parts were smashed. My hair was pulled out and fingers and toes squeezed with pliers. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat.

Mutegi Njau, who remains my great hero, risked his life to drive through bandit territory to Garissa to demand my release. He visited me in the cells. Emaciated and sickly, I met Mutegi for the first time. Two days after his visit, I was escorted at gunpoint to my house and allowed to pick up my academic certificates. I was then taken to court, declared persona non grata in northeastern province. Armed policemen drove me to Garissa express offices where I boarded a bus to Nairobi. Handcuffed, I stood all the way despite the fact that there were empty seats. I had just begun my journey in the journalism career.

A 2020 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Toronto found that many journalists reporting on Covid19 pandemic showed symptoms of anxiety and depression. Around 11 per cent reported symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and around 70 per cent suffered from psychological distress. Journalists who cover natural disasters, war, violence, abuse and harassment, face anxiety, depression, sleep and eating disorders. They also survive burnout and trauma and PTSD.

Journalists who cover natural disasters, war, violence, abuse and harassment, face anxiety, depression, sleep and eating disorders. [iStockphoto]

Most journalists around the world lack institutional support on work-life balance. Mental health disorders and the consecutive lack of balance, disconnects journalists from the real world. According to the Dart Centre, a research Centre for Journalists, most Journalists assignments can affect their mental health. The Centre says that depending on their beats or work locations, 4 to 59 per cent of journalists have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. They are exposed to the risk of emotional distress.

I covered horrific road accidents. I observed up-close body parts of accident or fire victims. In the beginning, I acted tough, but I later realised the damage when I watched some of, my colleagues waste away. They died and we buried them.

When Ouko was assassinated, Kisumu and the rest of Kenya broke into violence and riots. Kenyans had been agitating for political, social and economic freedom. Kanu had clamped down on citizen rights. The country was just waiting for the spark to explode and the murder was the match stick it required. For days, my colleagues and I were caught up in violent street battles. Many are the times we escaped death narrowly.

I have never recovered from the images of injured men, women and children streaming into the New Nyanza General Hospital. They came in limping, on stretchers, wheelchairs or on wheelbarrows. Many suffered gunshot and knife wounds. Others had broken limbs and smashed heads. I lost count of those who died at the consultancy room. Doctors and nurses were overwhelmed. The wards were packed to capacity. The stinking morgue was overflowing.

The terror in the eyes of a mother and her daughter, lying on the bloodied hospital floor, has never left me. The two were gang-raped by policemen who found them preparing lunch for customers in a kiosk in Obunga. The 14-year-old daughter was helping her mum when they were attacked, beaten, then gang raped. Broken bottles were then inserted into their genitalia. They were then dipped into sufurias of boiling tea and porridge. "Why didn't they just kill me instead of doing this to my daughter." She wailed. I felt so helpless. All I could do was tell her story. The country was immersed in impunity.

Just as the mother and daughter were being wheeled into the crowded ward, another victim of police shooting was brought in. The short stout man had a gaping wound in the head. People scattered from the bloodied mess that he was. Just then, a contingent of riot police stormed the casualty area. They clobbered the man to death as we watched, lobed tear gas into hospital wards, unplugged oxygen masks from patients in the ICU, beat up hospital staff, then casually walked away. It was like living a scene in a horror movie.

Long after Ouko had been buried, my photographer Baraka Karama and I journeyed to Bungoma County to document the Bukusu circumcision ceremony. We arrived at our target village in Tongareni at around 4.30pm. There was a riot of excitement as soon as we said we were journalists from Kisumu. About 100 youth, chanting derogatory songs, stripped us naked. After confirming that we had met the knife, they apologised and allowed us to stay over and work on the feature.

Terrible famine

A month later, we were in Turkana to cover a terrible famine. Baraka Karama and I spent a week with the starving families. We had the misfortune of going through what some of Pastor Paul Mackenzie's followers endured, forced fasting. One week without food is no joke. While still conducting our interviews, a local district officer ordered our arrest. We spend two days in police cells. The DO thought he was doing Kanu a favour. Upon our release, I did a story that led to his sacking.

There is, however, an event that makes me remember Kisumu with mixed feelings. I was driving home at 1am one night. A few meters from the Nyanza General Hospital, a small crowd blocked my vehicle. It's as if it had gathered specifically to wait for me. I was forcefully ejected from the car and made to walk to a pub in Kondele.

"We were hired to kill you but after conducting peksen (research), we found out that you are a good friend to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Instead of killing you, we shall drink some of the money and then take the balance back to the owner," the gang leader told me.

I stayed with them till morning. At 7am, we all left for the mayor's parlor. Kisumu Mayor Akinyi Oile was in his chambers. The gang leader cleared his throat and said: "Mheshimiwa, you asked us to kill this man but we can't kill him. We have brought you back what remains of your money."

The mayor was stunned and dazed in shock. The gang agreed to accompany me to the Nyanza Provincial Police Headquarters to record a statement. The PPO Jadiel Kiraithe summoned the mayor. He warned him that should anything happen to me, he would be held responsible.

Mayor Oile was infuriated by an expose I had done on the Kisumu Municipal Council which brought out the rot in the lakeside town. Corruption had destroyed the infrastructure at the Kisumu bus park. Drugs had disappeared from dispensaries. Water was contaminated with fecal matter and the town was choking under the grip of rotting garbage. After the special report appeared in the Friday Nation, President Moi dissolved the council. Mayor Oile hired thugs to eliminate the man who exposed his ineptitude.

An aerial view of Kisumu. [XN Iraki, Standard]

Then, violence broke out along the Kisumu and Kericho border. Politically-instigated violence turned ethnic with Luos suddenly fighting Kalenjin warriors. Kanu was trying to forestall the multiparty forces.

Between 1991 and 1992, when Kenya had its first multiparty elections, I lost count of the dead and the dying. A time came when the management of the Nation Newspaper demanded that we physically confirm the gender of each dead individual because the government had made it its custom to deny and challenge all our stories. I've never forgotten images of corpses with arrows stuck in their torsos, guts spilt open and many headless. The smell of death lingered in my nostrils for years.

The 1996 MV Bukoba Ferry disaster, almost knocked me out. MV Bukoba was a Lake Victoria passenger and cargo ferry. It operated between the ports of Bukoba and Mwanza City. Although designed for 430 passengers, it capsized on May 21 1996, killing more than 1,000 people. Families died. Some were coming from wedding ceremonies. Others were sportsmen and women from festivities. Many were school-going teenagers returning home at the end of the school term. Among the dead was Abu Ubaidah al Banshiri, al Qaeda's second in command at the time.

I interviewed survivors, many of them who couldn't swim. I talked to those who survived but lost entire families. They were broken and wished they had died. I learned interesting lessons, that in such accidents, ardent and expert swimmers die easily. They either confidently attempt to reach the shore and exhausted drown, or non-swimmers cling to them eventually killing them. Survivors clung on to jerricans, wooden planks and anything that could float until help came. At the end of the rescue mission, I tearfully covered the mass burial at the Mwanza stadium. The East African region went into mourning. President Benjamin Mkapa called for three days of grieving.

After the MV Bukoba assignment, I thought I was tough and hardened. Then the Group Managing Editor Wangethi Mwangi assigned me to conduct an undercover beat in 1999. With the help of the then Chief Government Pathologist Dr Kirasi Olumbe, I joined the Nairobi City Mortuary, as a trainee doctor. I watched closely as Olumbe cut through bodies while conducting postmortem. I observed mortuary attendants toying with death.

They causally placed their tea and mandazis besides corpses, some in state of decay. "This is how some of these fellows get deadly infections by failing to observe hygiene rules and work ethics," Olumbe told me. We ploughed through dozens of bodies and each day we would drive to Kenyatta Market for nyama choma lunch. "This meat looks just like that fat fellow we cut through," Olumbe would joke. I learned to cling to my appetite. Today, whenever I train journalists, I encourage them to make good use of trauma counselling services.

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