Kilelengwani, Kenya – Men with machetes hacked their way inside the mosque’s prayer room where the women and children were hiding as the morning light streamed through a jagged hole in the front door.
Village elder Omar Shure, 57, barricaded himself and dozens of others in the adjacent room of the Masjid al-Noor in eastern Kenya, desperately pushing against it as the attackers tried kicking it down. Outside he heard shouting.
“Just kill them,” someone commanded. And then another voice said: “Are you still alive? You’re lucky.”
By the time the tribal militia was finished, 38 bodies were strewn about the village. Shure managed to keep the assailants at bay. But the others in the prayer room were not so fortunate. Five women and two children lay dead on the floor. A young girl, slashed across the face, was the sole survivor.
“They were screaming, so loudly,” Shure recalled. “Even now I hear them in my head.”
The militia left after 20 minutes. Shure opened the mosque’s door and walked out into his destroyed village. He found his wife’s body 50 metres from the entrance.
“This is not normal. I have never seen a situation where people deliberately kill women and children.”
The September 10 massacre at Kilelengwani – carried out by ethnic Pokomo against the Orma tribe – followed a string of tit-for-tat attacks between the agriculturalist and pastoralist communities.
More than 110 people have been killed since late August in Kenya’s Tana River region, about 420km from the capital Nairobi. Some 6,000 people have been displaced, according to Human Rights Watch.
Tensions regularly flare between the two groups during the dry season, when Orma bring their cattle to graze on Pokomo land.
But the conflicting livelihoods of two communities no longer sufficiently explains the level of violence. The attackers are better organised and display unprecedented levels of brutality, indiscriminately killing women and children.
A growing cast of politicians and local and foreign investors have become increasingly involved in the resource-rich Tana River region, raising questions as to who exactly is behind the violence – and to what end.
From rivalry to enmity
It was not the first time Kilelengwani has been attacked. A month before, 30 Pokomo stormed the village but were outnumbered by Orma residents armed with spears. The Orma killed two raiders and chased the rest away.
Shure recognised one of the two bodies as a former teacher from the Kilelengwani primary school. “He came to attack his students and their parents.”
Other survivors echoed Shure, identifying neighbours among the assailants.
“They are trying to push rivalry to enmity. People are really pushing it,” said Tony Soka, a 26 year-old Pokomo shop-owner from the nearby town of Garsen. “You can live with your rivals, but you cannot live with your enemies.”
In the past, skirmishes over pasture and water have been settled by Pokomo and Orma tribal elders. They met, slaughtered an animal, and prayed together. But the scale and nature of recent violence confounds traditional peace mechanisms.
“This is not normal. I have never seen a situation where people deliberately kill women and children,” said Hussein Dado, a politician running for governor of Tana River County.
The systematic nature of the killing in Kilelengwani and Riketa, where 54 have died, suggests a well-trained militia is at work. Survivors of both massacres describe uniformed men, wearing black trousers and red T-shirts with red scarves wrapped around their heads or wrists. The attackers moved in groups, each with a commander and a distinct task: to kill, to burn, and to carry out their own casualties.
Kenya’s final frontier
Most here said they face a large Pokomo militia backed by politicians with the intent to permanently remove the Orma people from Kenya’s most fertile region.
“They are after this delta,” said Omar Bacha, an Orma health worker posted at a camp for displaced people in the town of Dide Waride. “That’s why our tribe is being killed, and their cows are being destroyed.”
Hundreds of Orma survivors from the massacres at Riketa and Kilelengwani, including Shure, sought refuge in the camp supported by the Kenya Red Cross.
Historically, Kenya’s government has been largely absent. But recently, this neglected delta has garnered interest by those in Nairobi and beyond. The Tana and Athi River Development Authority, a government subsidiary, has dished out land to a number of large-scale commercial farms, a sugar plantation, and a Canadian biofuel project.
These schemes threaten the unique wetland habitat, as well as require the eviction of thousands of indigenous residents – both Pokomo and Orma. Despite their protests and those of environmental organisations, the conditions for land-grabbing are ripe. Kenya’s poorest and least educated citizens live here on its richest land.
Commercial interests will soon be subject to new political authorities. As outlined in Kenya’s new constitution, the process of devolution will transfer significant power to newly created counties and their governors, to be elected in Kenya’s election next March.
Several Orma and Pokomo politicians are vying for the governorship of Tana River county. “Now we can do a lot of development in these counties, when everything is decided here locally,” said candidate Hussein Dado. “This region can feed the nation.”
Obtuse government response
“It’s better we run instead of waiting to be killed.”
– Suleiman Ludu, displaced ethnic Pokomo
Late last week, more than 1,000 new Kenyan military police, known as General Service Units (GSU), left the academy in Nairobi for Tana River district on buses gifted by the Chinese government. Residents of Tana River warily awaited their arrival.
“GSU historically enjoys a dreadful reputation with most Kenyans,” explained Abdullahi Halakhe, the Kenya analyst with the International Crisis Group. “As a paramilitary unit, they are only deployed in situations where the police have failed to maintain law and order. And in most cases where they have been deployed, they have employed the ultimate indiscriminate force.”
Just days after the GSU arrived, the Kenya Red Cross reported the burning of 20 homes in two Pokomo villages, Buranazi and Ozi. Residents accused the military police of razing the houses after searching for weapons, and arresting 19 men suspected of perpetrating violence.
Other security measures imposed include a dawn-to-dusk curfew issued by President Mwai Kibaki following the massacre at Kilelengwani, broken by Orma attackers only hours later as they struck the Pokomo village of Semikaro.
Member of Parliament Dhadho Godhana, serving as assistant minister of livestock, was arrested last week on charges of inciting violence. A subsequent Human Rights Watch report implicated three other politicians and found local police failed to react to repeated reports that violence was imminent.
“Several politicians or political hopefuls have been linked to the violence in Tana River,” HRW’s Leslie Lefkow said. “Ending the political violence in Tana River requires bringing to book those behind the clashes on both sides.”
The government’s responses illustrate its inexperience in this far corner of the Kenyan state. And the recent deployment of the military police units has inspired little confidence among the local population.
“It’s better we run instead of waiting to be killed,” said Suleiman Ludu, a Pokomo staying in a camp in Witu, just a few kilometres from the Orma camp in Didi Waride.
Returning home, if it still stands, is not yet an option, he said.