Nobody lingers any more over a drink or a meal at the village restaurant at Chemolingot trading centre, 30km north of Kapedo – a troubled area at the border of Baringo and Turkana counties.
The restaurant is now closed and the owner says it is likely to stay that way for another month or so.
That is hardly surprising, given that six men were abducted in the area and later killed, in what villagers believe to be extra-judicial killings, following the brutal murder a senior police officer on January 17.
More chilling is the fact that there are a few customers left in the village within Baringo County, as dozens of men have fled in fear of a massive security operation.
The recent killing of General Service Unit (GSU) Operation Commander Emadau Tebakol and that of Chief Inspector of Police in charge of Rapid Redeployment Unit (RDU) a day after, heightened tension in the region.
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Response by the security teams to the twin murders has left a bad taste in the mouth of local leaders and residents after bodies of six people – most of them government officials – were discovered in a thicket.
However, Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya has dismissed claims of extra-judicial killings, saying it was not clear who murdered the six.
“The area is dangerous, people are in possession of illegal firearms, which they have been using in terrorising residents and even killing our officers. So it is not clear who killed the six,” said Natembeya during press briefing at his office last week.
Police records show that since 2014, more than 40 people, including 23 security men, have been killed, many injured and thousands of animals stolen by bandits in Kapedo.
Most murders go unresolved, though, so the chance of finding the latest killers of the security personnel or the six civilians seem remote.
The Government has deployed dozens of security personnel in the region to pursue the attackers and pacify the region, but hundreds of residents have fled their homes to either escape the wrath of the security men or the marauding bandits.
The displaced families and their leaders have been begging for humanitarian assistance from the Government and well-wishers.
Businesses have been shut down and the main road connecting Marigat, Chemolingot to Kapedo is inaccessible due to threats of attacks.
A local Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) official told the Sunday Standard that the humanitarian organisation has been trying to help the injured and most vulnerable to access health facilities and get supplies.
“The victims of the attack are facing a food crisis. There is an urgent need for relief food, tents, clothes and utensils. We have tried to donate some items like blankets and jerrycans, we have ordered more consignments but the people’s needs are overwhelming,” he said on the phone yesterday.
Kapedo is not for the faint of heart, as three journalist who were caught up in the attacks found out last week.
Mike Ekutan (Radio Maisha), Emmanuel Cheboit (Citizen TV), and Peter Warutumo (NTV) say they were lucky to have come out of the area alive.
They had accompanied three MPs from Turkana, Lokiru Ali Mohammed (Turkana East), James Lomenen (Turkana South) and John Lodepe (Turkana Central) who were on a mission to distribute food.
Warutumo recalls that the latest attack began on Sunday after the slain GSU officer left the area where the leaders were holding a peace meeting.
“Only seven kilometres away from where we were ready to leave, we received information that the GSU convoy had been attacked by bandits,” he says.
They were forced to stay in Kapedo centre up to late in the night because their security and that of the politicians was no longer assured.
Ekutan says they were hostages with no food and clothes, only gunfire being exchanged between the security officers and the bandits.
“I have never been in a battlefield, let alone seeing a gun being fired. My ears were ringing due to the sound,” he recalls.
The hunger pangs forced the journalists to eat wild fruits. They were later rescued after the security teams used a safer route to sneak them out of Kapedo in the night.
“We reached Chemalingot in the dead of the night, that is when I was relieved and felt like a heavy log had been lifted off my shoulders,” Ekutan says.
With Kapedo under siege, four schools were shut last week and residents say they are running out of food because the road to Marigat through Ameyan is impassable.
“We are living at the mercy of bandits. They have taken control of the area and strike anytime they wish, kill and maim. Women and children cannot fetch water from the river or collect firewood unless they are accompanied by security personnel,” says Harun Muya, a resident.
Lack of resources
Residents say there is more to the attacks than meets the eye. They say cattle rustling should be ruled out because they no longer have many cows and goats to attract rustlers’ attention.
Muya says the attacks are more frequent in January when it does not rain. A few of the reasons advanced for the insecurity include lack of resources, unresolved boundary issues and failure by the Government to stamp its authority in the region.
East of Kapedo are hot springs that are the source of River Suguta. The springs provide a permanent source of water even during the dry season. Pasture is also in plenty around the springs, a nearby airstrip and the surrounding areas of Solar and Kasarani.
According to residents, these are some of the most dangerous areas. More than 20 police officers were killed in Kasarani in an ambush in 2014. A police lorry was later torched.
“You approach these areas and you will be repulsed by gunfire,” says Muya.
Justus Ekeno, the chairperson of Turkana community living in the diaspora, says unresolved boundary issues are a major cause of conflict.
“The Government should address the issue once and for all and peace will prevail,” Ekeno said, adding that illegal firearms have also fallen into the hands of rogue people who use them to harm others. Leaders from Turkana County have called on the Government to designate bandits behind deadly attacks in Kapedo a “domestic terrorist group” and use its apparatus to finish the insecurity problem in the region.
The leaders spoke as they were stranded in Kapedo centre.
Lomenen condemned the killing of the senior GSU officer and two other officers.
“The bandits terrorising Kapedo are organised criminals canvassing as bandits whose acts correlate with activities of the terror group. We support the current security operation and appeal to the Government to disarm the civilians,” he said.
The legislator said the national government should move with speed and deploy more security officers with sophisticated apparatus in order to protect people’s lives and property.
Turkana Governor Josphat Nanok said the situation in Kapedo is dire, with residents living in perpetual fear of attacks while insecurity has delayed emergency response by the county government.
He said following the murder of two other police officers, leaders are calling on the Government to designate the armed militia behind the attacks as a terrorist group and roll out a serious operation to end the menace once and for all.
“These bandits are not a ragtag group of cattle rustlers. They have characteristics of a terrorist group – are well organised, have been indoctrinated, are heavily armed, have no respect for the Constitution and their main mission is death and destruction. It’s time to bring this terrorism to an end,” Nanok said.
Security experts, however, have blamed politics for the endless attacks.
Geneva Centre for Africa Security and Strategic Studies President Simiyu Werunga says the Government has failed to do what is required.
“As long as the two warring communities continue to lay claim to the area, the conflict will never end. The Kapedo issue is about politics and until you deal with politicians, the elders and the chief, you are wasting your time,” says Werunga.
He says the Government should not talk of disarmament at the moment. “The locals will hand over 10 firearms to blackmail the Government but in real sense keep dozens.”
He blamed the government for not interacting with the people and allowing amorphous militia groups to take control of the area.
“Until the government says this is our space, the conflict will not end,” says Werunga.
“Kapedo is not about using a mortar; use a carrot and stick. Deal with the issue of demarcation of grazing land and who owns it. Resettle people and then use the stick to deal with the bandits.”
[Additional reporting by Bakari Ang’ela]