Kenya’s Wagalla massacre 30 years later

Survivors of the mass killing are upset the government has not brought the killers to justice.

Those killed in the massacre were buried in this unmarked graveyard near the airstrip [Jamil Amir/Al Jazeera]

Nairobi, Kenya – For four days in February 1984, Abdirizak Nur Mohamed was forced to lay on the pebbly ground of the Wagalla Airstrip in Kenya’s northeast.

The Kenyan army arrested Abdirizak as he went to submit his admission papers for high school. He said he was rounded up with a group of other men in Wajir town as he left the school, and put on a military truck that delivered them to the airstrip. 

With no food or water in the scorching February sun, the men were continuously beaten and tortured, with some executed by the Kenyan army. 

“I remember what happened here very clearly,” Abdirizak recounted one morning as he walked near the deserted airstrip. “They were collecting people during the day and during the night, and they were all brought here. At night, we were told to remove our clothes, and during the day we were told to lie down on the heated ground.”

The Wagalla massacre, which occurred in early February 1984, started as an effort to disarm the ethnic Degodia clan following clan-related conflict in the region populated by Kenyan-Somalis. What followed would later be recorded as a “systematic” targeting of a civilian population, making it one of Kenya’s worst cases of human rights abuses. Eyewitnesses claim that thousands of people were delivered to the airstrip, kept hungry, ordered to strip naked and lie on the ground for days.

When the army saw you walking down the streets, they would stop you, and ask, 'Which clan are you from?' If you say, 'I'm Degodia', they would put you in the lorry and drive off.

by - Abdirazak Nur Mohamed

Though the Kenyan government has put the official number of dead at 57, eyewitnesses claim as many as 5,000 people were killed.

The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up to investigate human rights violations and other historical injustices in Kenya, stated in its report last year that “close to a thousand” people were killed in Wagalla. The commission also stated it was “unable to determine the precise number of persons murdered”.

Three decades later

The commission also reported that security agents committed other atrocities including “torture, brutal beatings, rape and sexual violence”, as well as “burning of houses and looting of property”.

Even local leaders and chiefs were not spared. Haji Mohamed Abdullahi, a former police officer, said he was in Wajir at the time. 

“When the army saw you walking down the streets, they would stop you, and ask, ‘Which clan are you from?’ If you say, ‘I’m Degodia’, they would put you in the lorry and drive off. When it got full, they took all the detained to the Wagalla Airstrip. There were not differentiating people at all,” said Mohamed. 

Assertions such as Mohamed’s later formed part of the argument that the Kenyan government played a role in planning and executing the operation.

Wajir is a small town in a parched, sunbaked district that is home mainly to ethnic Somalis. Three decades later, residents here double over in grief when they remember what happened to them and their loved ones. Though they try to move on with their lives, many say their “pride and humanity” was trampled. 

For years, Somalis in Kenya faced marginalisation, especially following the Shifta war between the Kenyan government and Somali secessionists. Consequently, years later the government demanded that all ethnic Somalis above the age of 18 in Kenya undergo screening to ascertain their identity, a process Human Rights Watch said led to Somalis in Kenya being “treated as second-class citizens”.

Before the Wagalla massacre, Nur Daqane Abdi believed his Kenyan identity card would keep him safe, even though his relatives warned him of the detentions. But that wasn’t the case.

“They kept beating us continuously. Every man was being beaten. I stood up three times and I went to the police officer and asked him to shoot me in the head so that I die. ‘You are not worthy of my bullets,’ he told me and asked me to go sit back. I didn’t think I would ever get out of there alive.”

Model of peace

But since the early 1990s, the Wajir region has experienced relative peace brokered by women’s groups, who with the help of community elders and businessmen reduced inter-clan conflict, the precursor to the Wagalla massacre. 

Our focus is to put people on the right track, to let them understand their roles and responsibilities in the society.

by - Abdi Billow Elmi, programme coordinator at Wajir Peace & Development Agency

These initiatives culminated in the signing of the al-Fatah declaration, which set out rules for future relations between clans, a model that has been adopted across pastoralist communities in Kenya. 

Organisations such as the Wajir Peace & Development Agency have been at the forefront of tackling violence and crime, and have begun creating awareness on the structural causes of conflict, such as poverty and underdevelopment. 

“We are trying to link peace and development, trying to educate our people. Our focus is to put people on the right track, to let them understand their roles and responsibilities in the society and also how they can put their government in check,” said Abdi Billow Elmi, the programme coordinator at Wajir Peace & Development Agency.

One of the ways to tackle these root causes of conflict, Abdi said, is by encouraging youth to complete their education. He said he hopes the opening of the Wajir Peace University, the first university in northeastern Kenya, will open doors for more graduates who can assist.

Search for justice

The search for justice has not stalled for the victims of Wagalla. However, so far none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice, and none of the families have been compensated for the loss of their loved ones. 

The only official recognition of the event is the monument recently erected by the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights in Wajir town. The commission, though, has recommended that the airstrip in Wagalla be made into a national monument.

A view of downtown Wajir [Jamil Amir/Al Jazeera]

“Generally, nothing much has changed, especially for the victims of the Wagalla massacre,” said Abdikadir Ahmed Ore, a member of parliament from Wajir West, the district where Wagalla is located.

Salah Abdi Sheikh, whose book Blood on the Runway is one of the first and few accounts of the massacre, said he doesn’t expect much to change in the coming years.

“We are in a country where justice and reconciliation and recognition of past events and understanding our own history is a problem.

“I have come to the realisation that the way things are at the moment, the Kenyan government will do nothing about the Wagalla massacre, or about any other significant event that happened in the past, especially when it is about justice.” 

The events of those four days in February 30-years ago have left Abdirizak Nur scarred, and he cannot narrate the story without his mind conjuring up images of death and destruction. Occasionally, he recalls in his dreams how people were shot in the back as they tried to run.

“Those were very sad days,” he said.

Follow Abdi Latif Dahir on Twitter: @Lattif

Source: Al Jazeera