Wagalla massacre: Brave men and women who risked it all to save lives

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy... Martin Luther King Junior

The events that took place in Wajir between February 10 and February 14, 1984 left deep scars and wounds among victims which still reverberate up till now.

In those five days, thousands of men were herded into Wagalla airstrip, stripped naked and made to lie down under the baking sun, denied water and food, tortured and many of them shot dead.

The sordid measure of brutality, death and tears that defined the now infamous operation aside, few men and women left indelible positive marks which affirmed the innate goodness of humanity.

Sister Annalena Tonelli

The undisputed heroine of the Wagalla massacre, Sister Annalena's exploits in the face of human tragedy that befell the Degodia men, sounds near mythical.

During the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) hearings, Mohamed Elmi, a former nursing officer who worked under him, and now an MP, narrated Sister Annalena's extraordinary role in rescuing the perishing and caring for the dying.

Annalena, an Italian volunteer and Catholic lay sister, had lived in Wajir for 15 years prior to the massacre assisting the less fortunate, running a TB and rehabilitation centre.

Her operations started in Bulla Jogoo near Wajir town where the operation is said to have been most heartless. Elmi said Sister Annalena personally went to remove the remains of a disabled person who had been burned in his house by troops for burial.

Together with Elmi, Sister Annalena drove into Wagalla airstrip on February 13 — the last day of the confinement — to collect the wounded and the dying.

The foray into the scene of death ended disastrously with the pair being repulsed with cocked guns. They drove back to Wajir town only to be told there had been a break-out at the camp and many detainees had died and others wounded.

Sister Annalena led a search party into the bushes, where many of the injured were rescued and brought to her compound in Wajir town for treatment.

"We took the very injured ones to the hospital, which was already full, and the rest to her compound for treatment. We mobilised hospital staff to start treating them. Some volunteered to work day and night," Elmi recounted to the TJRC.

Sister Annalena is said to have stormed a meeting of League of Red Cross Societies, Switzerland visiting officials at the DC's office on February 14, 1984 to inform the delegation that people were dying nearby.

Later that night, she left in two cars to search for the dying who had been dumped in faraway locations by panicky troops. She buried the dead in mass graves in her compound. The graves still exist.

According to the TJRC report, Sister Annalena is the one who came up with the idea of taking photos as evidence of the massacre. The photos were then sneaked to local leaders, consulates, diplomatic missions and relief agencies.

Sister Annalena was named in the first official report of the incident compiled by John Etemesi, the then PC Eastern. She was named as a person who "played and featured prominently during the incident in her efforts to assist the people".

Her work permit was thereafter not renewed and she relocated to Somalia where she set up a hospital. She was killed in 2003 by assassins.

Mohamed Elmi

A nursing officer in Wajir at the time, Elmi went round alongside Sister Annalena Tonelli collecting the injured for treatment and the dying for burial.

With Sister Annalena, Elmi made an attempt to assist the men held up in Wagalla airstrip when whispers went round that they had been released.

He broke down in tears during the TJRC hearing when he narrated his glimpse of the situation at the airstrip before they were repulsed by military officers guarding the men.

"What I saw and which has remained very distinctly in my mind until today, is a pile of bodies to my right, and two naked people carrying another dead body to put on the pile.

On the far left side of the field, I saw a young man running to the water bowser which had water leaking and flowing from it. Two soldiers were coming from different directions and beating him," he said.

Elmi went scouting for the injured in the bushes and retrieved them for treatment. Many died because they ran away from the sound of cars as they thought they were being pursued.

He described an encounter with military in the bushes.

"As we were parked, with our vehicle doors open, two military lorries came after us. The soldiers first asked for directions. They were wearing masks. They told us to remove our vehicle from the road so they can pass. They went ahead, and as they passed stench came out of the lorries. We later learned that they were the ones dropping the dead bodies."

Elmi also visited the airstrip a day after the massacre, together with Annalena, to collect the bodies which he said were "scattered all over the place".

In his testimony, Elmi said because there was disbelief about the deaths, they decided to drive through Wajir town with a truck full of the dead to the Catholic compound of Sister Annalena where they were buried.

For his efforts, Elmi's group was ambushed, beaten and locked up. He also played a role in mobilising witnesses to testify in the various inquiries which ensued.
He his brother Ugas Ibrahim was killed while another brother, Hassan Ibrahim, was beaten up and dumped in the bushes. Hassan walked home all night naked and injured.

Nancy Caroline

An American doctor with AMREF at the time, Caroline worked against all odds to offer help to the victims of the Wagalla massacre.

Panicky government operatives had banned relief operations in the wake of the massacre, fearing leaks to the press and the international community.

According to the TJRC report, Dr Caroline resigned from Amref in order to side-step the ban.

"She then somehow organised a charter plane filled with food and medicine supplies from Nairobi to Wajir. She remained in Wajir for two weeks assisting Sister Annalena in the provision of emergency care."

In its report, the commission described Dr Caroline's mission to Wajir as "extraordinary" given the odds she faced. The mission appears to have been covert and largely unknown to the government.

She then, together with Michael Wood who also worked for Amref, compiled a report documenting the situation, a report that proved crucial in later attempts to secure relief and aid to Wagalla victims.

According to Elmi, AMREF supplies in Wajir had run out at the time. The Ministry of Health's attempts to send supplies were allegedly stopped by government operatives.

Sir Michael Wood
Together with Caroline, Michael worked for Amref Kenya and was crucial in mobilising aid for desperate victims of the massacre.

According to Elmi, Wood mobilised European countries to come to Wajir to assess the situation, but this too was blocked.

"They reached Habaswein but were turned back. So a lot of people died weeks and months after the operation for lack of supplies. It was sometimes before any outsider was allowed to come to Wajir."

Armed with a report that had been written from the ground documenting the deaths, the injuries and devastation caused, Michael sought to meet top political leaders to plead for safe passage of relief aid.

The aim was to impress upon the leadership that although Amref knew exactly what was happening and how many people had died, it was not keen on publicising the matter provided they managed to assist the people of Wajir.

He met Vice President Mwai Kibaki who also chaired the National Security Committee.
"He had given Kibaki Dr Caroline's report and had emphasised that AMREF had not been and would not go to the press. The aim was to help with relief and not generate criticism of Kenya," a telegraph reproduced in the TJRC report reads.

The telegraph says although Kibaki was grateful for the report "as he did not know the details of what had happened", he held back on allowing relief operation.


Robert Rosenthal

A staff writer with Philadelphia Inquirer, Rosenthal, is among the first journalists to attempt to document the magnitude and details of the Wagalla massacre.
According to the TJRC report, the massacre was "weakly reported, particularly by the local press which latched onto the events long after international correspondents".

One of the first reports of the incident, according to the inquiry, was done by United Press International and was largely a basic reportage of the operation. It was filed on March 1, 1984, two weeks after the incident.

The second earliest reportage was an editorial denial by Kanu-owned Kenya Times newspaper accusing the foreign press and local leaders in Wajir of exaggerating "minor quarrels". The press coverage would later pick when the matter was brought before Parliament.

Rosenthal's report of April 8, 1984 was however special in one way. According to the commission, it was "victim and impact-oriented" as opposed to the local reports which centred on official discussions of the massacre in Parliament.

"He put together a detailed piece that was quite clearly constructed around sources with direct, first-hand knowledge of the operation, if not actual survivors and eyewitnesses.

The article contained all the elements of the Wagalla story, beginning with the pre-dawn round up of Wajir residents and their transfer to the airstrip," the report says.

So detailed was Rosenthal's story that the State security minister went to Parliament two days later and presented more detailed and contextualised statement on the incident.

Ahmed Khalif

An MP of Wajir East at the time, Khalif, is credited with forcing the story of Wagalla down the throats of local media and give it national attention.

Khalif, who had dramatically escaped arrest after the operation ended, had been feeding foreign press with information from Nairobi and had waited on the National Assembly, then on recess, to amplify the matter.

"In general, the Kenyan press behaved as if nothing had happened, and if it were not for the international press, the world would not have known what happened in Wagalla," Khalif said at the launch of a book about the massacre.

According to the TJRC report, Khalif made "an extraordinary and charged appearance" in Parliament on March 21, a day after it re-opened.

He used the time allotted to discuss the President's speech to inform members on the happenings in Wajir, stunning many who had not read or heard anything about the operation.

To back himself up on what appeared to be sensational claims, Khalif tabled photographs of the dead, the injured and the security forces in operation.

"With his remarks, Khalif ensured that the story of the Wagalla massacre rocketed from obscurity to front page news. The following day, Khalif's descriptions of the operation were reported by all the local newspapers," the commission report states.

A week later, Internal Security Minister Justus ole Tipis appeared in Parliament to issue a ministerial statement on the matter. His admission that 57 people died in the operation revived the story further with Standard splashing: "59 Killed in violence" and Nation screaming; "57 killed by troops in Wajir""

Khalif died in 2003 in a helicopter crash in Busia shortly after being appointed a Cabinet minister.

Abdullahi Unshur

The councillor of Wajir Town East Ward at the time, Unshur established himself as a champion of the Wagalla victims at a time when it was quite unfashionable to do so.

The TJRC report says he "seemed to have developed into something of a spokesman for sections of the Degodia community" in the days and weeks after the massacre.
In doing so, the man came under the spotlight of the District Security Committee which viewed him as "an agitator of sorts determined to cultivate post-Wagalla tensions".

The councillor also featured in the report of the first official inquiry in to the Wagalla operation chaired by then Eastern Province PC J K Etemesi produced on March 15, 1984.

The report blamed Degodia leaders and elders of trying to capitalise on the incident to "tarnish the good name of the Government".

"The most vocal is councillor Abdullahi Unshur of Wajir East Ward who has since left for Nairobi. Councillor Abdullahi, with the assistance of Sheikh Abass Adan Musa, are believed to be compiling a list of all people who allegedly died as a result of the incident," the Etemesi report reads.

By July 1984, Unshur had published and distributed a pamphlet containing a list of 1,000 dead and 5,000 rounded up in the operation. The pamphlet said the 5,000 were rounded up, stripped naked and forced to lie on their bellies under the hot sun.

"The councillor himself went on to solidify his reputation as an energetic champion of the Wajir Degodia until his death in either 1993 or 1994," TJRC concluded.