By Lucas Ng’asike
A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the Kenya–Ethiopia border following incessant invasion by armed militia from Ethiopia.
The Merille militia has put in shambles lives of Kenyans around Lake Turkana leaving a trail of death and destruction.
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Even with the presence of the General Service Unit (GSU) on the border point, the militia constantly cross into Kenya and attacks residents of Todonyang.
So cheap are the lives of Kenyans that they are used as trophy. The attackers’ kill and remove body parts, particularly private parts, which they later use as evidence of their bravery back home.
"The worst attacks occur in August when the Merille circumcise their boys.
Going for a raid and returning with body parts is a show of heroism," said Moses Lopeyok, a chief in Turkana.He said the raiders abandon the bodies in the lake, some float and are pushed to the banks by waves only to be devoured by wild animals.
Most of the bodies, Lopeyok said, are never recovered.
"Sometimes, skeletons of our people are swept to the banks. These are people who disappeared and their bodies left to the mercies of the lake," he added.
Efforts to retrieve the bodies are rarely successful since the raiders attack rescue teams in the lake.
The militias have encroached about 15km into the country and secured part of Lake Turkana where they have continuously waged an offensive against residents and the Kenya security personnel including the GSU and the Administration Police manning the border.
Lokitaung DC Jack Obuo told CCI that reports from chiefs in the area confirm that initiates from the Merille community raid Turkana to kill and carry body parts.
"I cannot confirm or deny these ritual killings because I have personally not seen a body with missing parts. But my chiefs tell me it is happening," said Obuo.
The DC said he is told that initiates from the Merille community are required to kill a Turkana to complete their initiation.
"And it is during the initiation period that we see an upsurge of attacks. Our people fear venturing into Lake Turkana during these times," said Obuo. A deserted Todonyang Police Post on the Kenya-Ethiopia border. Inset: Kenyans living along this border recently fled from the area following attacks by Merille militia from Ethiopia who killed Kenyan security personnel and made away with their firearms. PHOTOS: LUCAS NG’ASIKE/STANDARD
The DC said Merille community is largely illiterate and still clings on to outdated traditions. Obuo said he had written several times to Ethiopia government to move the Merille from the border.
Last month, the raiders ambushed the Kenya security officers escorting fishermen to the lake and shot dead six people, including one AP, a reservist and a woman. A fisherman who was wounded was rushed to Lokitaung District Hospital.
They also stole a G3 rifle, police uniform and fishing nets.
Tension has remained high in Todonyang village, on the Kenya-Ethiopia border as hundreds of residents continue fleeing in fear of more attacks.
Two weeks ago, learning was paralysed as parents fled with their children. Classrooms in Todonyang Primary School, which had been destroyed by militia and rebuild recently, now houses administration police officers.
"We are not going to stay here because of insecurity. The Merille ambush us along the shores of Lake Turkana and kill our people," said Akiru Lokor, a resident.
Lokor said Kenya police at Todonyang Police Post were doing little to curb the invasion.
Area councillor Osman Eleman said there has been a security lapse for many years.
He said that last year, the militias killed five fishermen and abducted 10 others who were never found.
Lokor claimed that some of the militia could be colluding with some officers as they had been spotted visiting the police post.
But Lokitaung District Commissioner Jack Obuo denied the claims.
However, the DC said some Merille tribesmen from Ethiopia occasionally visit the police post to provide police with intelligence.
"We are very friendly to some of them because they sometimes assist us with information about impending raids. We share general security issues along the border," the DC said.
Obuo said security personnel have increased patrols along the Lake to flush out the killers.
He added that security operations have been made difficult by the thick ‘forest’ of reeds growing in the lake.
A deserted Todonyang Police Post on the Kenya-Ethiopia border. Inset: Kenyans living along this border recently fled from the area following attacks by Merille militia from Ethiopia who killed Kenyan security personnel and made away with their firearms. PHOTOS: LUCAS NG’ASIKE/STANDARD
Residents have decried escalating insecurity and asked the Government to deploy more security forces.
It is estimated that since the conflicts between the Merille tribesmen and Turkana erupted over fishing territory, the Merille have killed over 60 people in Todonyang.
The priest at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, Todonyang, Steven Ochieng said insecurity had forced people to seek refuge in the church compound.
"We have buried more than 60 people killed in the attacks in the past one year and it is only fair that the Government should act fast," he said.
The priest said since the withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces at Namoruputh border point, Merille fighters have continued to attack fishermen and steal their fishing boats and nets.
Residents are now facing starvation and abject poverty as their main economic activity, fishing, has been crippled.
A fisherman, Lomilio Elomete, said the militias have stolen more than 1,000 nets and 10 boats in the last three months paralysing their businesses.
Elomete said the raiders use the stolen equipment to fish in Lake Turkana, which is rich with various fish species.
Ethiopian security authorities say they will prevent further attacks.
Security and Justice Officer in charge of Omorate Warda Division in the Omo Delta in Ethiopia, Tedeus Laben, told CCI that troops had been sent to the volatile area to deal with the militia.
Laben said Ethiopian forces shot dead a raider and recovered one firearm stolen from the slain Kenyan officers.
The recovery is believed to have been prompted by an ultimatum given by Kenyan security forces to the Ethiopians to return the firearms.
"We are hunting the other killers and hope to recover all the firearms stolen from Kenya," said Laben.
Laben said they had intelligence reports that the culprits were hiding in Ethiopian villages near the border following the launch of the crackdown.
"There is a high military presence, which forced them to seek refuge in villages. But we will smoke them out," he added.
Laben added that a cross-border security meeting will be held later this month at Awasa on the Ethiopian side to find ways of restoring security in the Lake Turkana shared by the two countries.
Experts from Kenya Marine Research Institute (KMFRI) say if Lake Turkana is well utilised, it could support the entire 500,000 people in Turkana District and boost food security.
But security must be provided particularly in areas with high fish production.
As the insecurity becomes rife in the area, residents have been forced to abandon fishing, which unfortunately is their only source of livelihood.
And it is not only over the constant raids that Turkana residents have a bone to pick with Ethiopia.
Recently, Todonyang, Lowarengak, Kalokol and Lodwar residents protested to the Ethiopian government to stop construction of a dam for hydro-electric power at River Omo, which is the main tributary of Lake Turkana.
They said the project could drastically reduce the flow of water into the lake jeopardising fishing activities.
Recipe for disaster
Residents now want the project stopped but the dispute could be a recipe for more disaster as it is likely to pit Ethiopian residents against the Turkanas.
The Merile community has allegedly encroached 15 kilometres into Kenyan territory and are now demanding Kenyan citizenship.
Close to 5,000 members of the community are claiming substantive land in Ngitira area of Todonyang and want the Kenya Government to issue them with national identity cards.
The community now has a paramount chief, Yarankol Lotikori, who is leading them to denounce Ethiopian citizenship.
The chief told CCI that they have lived there since 1963 and are Kenyans. But Ethiopian government claims they are Ethiopians.
Kenyan authorities at the border have issued them with ultimatums to move out but they have disregarded the notices and threatened to fight on.
Obuo did not wish to discuss the matter describing it as sensitive. He said the issue is being handled by the country’s top security organs.
The DC said a meeting has been convened between elders and opinion leaders from both the Turkana and Merille communities as a stopgap measure.
"We are doing all we can to ease the tension and work towards peaceful coexistence. It is a long shot but we are hopeful," he said.