Kenya's forgotten conflict and its forgotten people
“Go, go away!” cries Fabian Kiriamboin in his mother tongue. He is 2 years old and in pain. “I do not want you near me!”
The women in the camp are standing nearby.
Fabian, now hiding in the folds of his Aunt’s grey striped skirt, has a fearful look in his eyes. A steady stream of tears rolled down his chubby cheeks.
I try to move a little closer and he covers his eyes with both hands.
“You are a stranger,” a woman nearby explains.
Strangers, in this part of Kenya, are known danger.
Fabian and his aunt live at Eldume camp, a temporary shelter for internally displaced Kenyans.
The camp was quickly constructed after people fled bloodshed and violence caused by inter-ethnic conflict, a fight for natural resources and cattle stealing.
The conflict ignited in 2016 when a former military officer and his children were murdered as they traveled through a different tribal area. This act ignited a spate of revenge and retaliatory killings between the two communities. Forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes and leaving them classified as internally displaced persons in that region. The situation has been exacerbated by the ongoing drought and hunger crisis hitting the region.
Fabian is waving his arm to shoo me away. His aunt Gladys holds him close. She then gently soothes the agitated child. She tells him that I am not a policeman or a man with a gun - the people Fabian witnessed kill his mother. His reaction to my presence now falls into sharper contrast. “Police officers give him a fright. Anyone with a gun does,” adds Fabian’s aunt.
How it happened
What follows are allegations of the most damning nature. Witnesses to the violence share accounts of pregnant women having their swollen stomachs cut open to kill the unborn children.
“They (the attackers) wanted to kill the unborn children, removing the children from the mother’s womb,” Gladys states solemnly.
She wants the story to be told. What transpired should not be a forgotten story affecting a forgotten people. Those that survived must tell others and remember those who died.
Fabian’s mother was pregnant at the time of the attack with her second unborn child.
The killings started at 5pm at Mukutani village in Baringo County, Kenya. The attacked community sought solace in a local church, a place supposed to symbolise of shelter and safety. The attackers were well armed and dangerous.
“We had to run. We heard gunshots behind our backs. We fled covering our heads and not thinking of anything.”
The killers broke the main door of the church. The symbol of safety and shelter was violated.
“They were shooting randomly and killing mercilessly inside the church. We just had to run. I wish I had never lived,” Gladys says mournfully.
“It was an experience I don’t want to remember. The forest became our home.”
One can only imagine what is going through young Fabian’s mind. Children, women, mothers, and fathers were all traumatized by the attacks and killings in its aftermath. Around the camp, people are going on with their normal daily duties. This hides a very disturbing and uncomfortable truth. They all have scars and trauma they will have to carry their entire lives.
Shot in the back
Fabian’s mother fled with him tightly tied to her back. She ran away from the men with guns. “My sister pleaded with the attackers to spare her life,” Gladys remembers.
They did, initially. They demanded her cell phone and whatever money she had. She complied. They told her to leave. With Fabian still to her back, she tried to flee.
“On reaching just outside the door of the church another group of armed men positioned outside the church took her life. They shot her in the back,” says Gladys who witnessed her older sister being killed.
Gladys was well hidden in the church and not spotted by the attackers. When she felt that things had become quiet and the killers had left, she quickly and silently picked up Fabian from his mother’s back. It was a miracle that bullet did not find Fabian. She ran as fast as she could to the nearby forest.
Bodies of the dead
Fabians mother’s body and nine others were found inside the church. They were then transported to a mortuary at the next town. They were buried in the church compound. A few old men attended the burial, mostly husbands of women killed during the attack.
The police barred many people from accompanying the bodies to the burial. They feared more attacks and inflamed emotions. Even during transportation to the burial, the cortege was attacked. Shots rang out until they arrived that the Mukutani area for the burial ceremony.
“Why did this happen to us?” wonders Gladys.
It is a question many in the camp ask.
Arrival at Eldume
Everybody, all 146 families at the Eldume camp, has a haunting story to tell. They remember arriving at Eldume camp dazed and confused. They did not know how, where and when they would begin their lives anew.
They found themselves torn from all they knew and understood and were among strangers all of a sudden. No one from the community they sought shelter in knew who they were and where they came from.
Now, the clothes they put on as they fled are now tattered and dirty, a testament to the 25 kilometres they traveled from Mukutani to safety at Eldume camp.
Life slowly ambles on in the white-tented camp.
A simple tent has been Fabian’s and his aunt’s home for the last six months. I sit down in there as I look at old photos of Fabian. Now, he is calm and silent, looking keenly at what is what is going on. The tent fits a small wooden bed.
Beside it is an even smaller mattress covered in Maasai shuka (covering or sheet). A blue metal trunk made of recycled metal is at the opposite end of the room, parallel to the bed and mattress. There are dirty clothes stuffed in one corner of the tent as white and black insects crawl around on the earthen floor of the place they now call home.
Fabian misses his mom, even though he is too young to articulate it. The complexion of a woman’s skin frequently confuses Fabian now. His mother had a lighter skin complexion than most. The boy often runs to any women with a complexion that is similar to his dead mother’s. “He often cries and runs to a woman who looks like his mother before the harsh reality strikes,” Gladys says.
We have to go back
For six months a forest has been the backdrop to this camp.
The displaced are living on a piece of land donated by the church. The scattered green shrubs near the plastic tents can turn flammable in the dry season. It is less than ideal, but for now it is safe.
World Vision has supported the 146 families with non-food items. Each household received three blankets and utensils: three metal cooking pans, five plates, cups and spoons, one large bar soap, five toothpaste containers and brushes. Women also received with five packs of sanitary pads.
World Vision Kenya also supported pastors to do psychosocial support to help people reconcile and accept their current situation.
For children, the therapy is done in a creative way, with a child friendly approach. Children are given markers to draw on a flip chart. They draw the map of their village where their homes and schools used to be, they draw the places where they used to get water. Reflecting on the past helps children share their experiences and adjust to the new environment.
The children are also given opportunity to play. Provided with playing materials like a football and handballs, the children are able to play within a school compound during the reflection sessions.
World Vision Area Programmes Manager John Mutisya says, “When you look at displaced children they cry irritably and more often. They do not cease. That indicates they are traumatised.”
“Once the counselor reflects on the situation the displaced are facing, they speak out about it.”
The counselors teach and guide the displaced on how to adapt to their new reality and how to co-exists with the host community.
Still, resource limitations are a constant concern and more psychosocial support is needed. World Vision Kenya has requested funding to continue to support the emotional healing sessions for children that are a critical necessity.
They left their possessions, everything they had accumulated behind.
The people in the camp did not have much to begin with, but now have even less.
In the past, Gladys had worked hard and struggled to start a business. The killers probably destroyed it all by now she reckons.
The internally displaced persons owned houses and businesses and lived their lives that are now occupied by their attackers.
Micro and small business enterprises were all left at the mercy of the assailants. The displaced are now left to beg for relief food. They have nothing and depend on doing whatever menial jobs they can find. This is what life is like now.
“We find it hard to sleep and eat. Children do not attend school. It is a major issue of concern,” says Gladys.“We want to leave now and go back to Mukutani.”
Yet, before they can return, there are certain things that need to be done. People want peace and dialogue between the two communities. They also want to find out why this happened and what can done to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.