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Baringo County, Kenya – On a morning in mid-November, 16-year-old Richard left his father’s cluster of huts with a loaded AK-47.
He drove a dozen cattle from their village of Sinoni, in the hilly region of Mochongoi, along a footpath snaking west through shrubs. He was headed for grazing fields by a river which divides his Tugen and the Pokot tribe.
Richard, like most herders from his village, takes a gun whenever he drives cattle to the river.
He keeps his gun cocked: one bullet in the chamber, eight more in the magazine. He always runs into Pokot herders by the river, and although they have never attacked him, he needs to be prepared. Pokot raiders have stormed his village in the past.
“You never know when they will turn on you, kill you and take your livestock,” says Richard, who gave only his first name out of fear of being arrested for owning an illegal firearm.
In greater Baringo County, where the land, arid and rocky, is non-arable, the majority of Tugen who live there have traditionally been livestock farmers. Once nomadic, these days families usually live in one place, while herders, mostly men, move in search of pasture and water.
Kenya’s pastoralist communities have long considered cattle rustling a cultural practice, according to a 2011 Kenya Human Rights Commission report. In the past, warriors would wield crude weapons such as spears, swords and bows and arrows to steal livestock, but they rarely killed people.
Livestock is a symbol of wealth; stealing cattle was considered a means to elevate one’s status.
But in the past few decades, in West Pokot, Baringo, Laikipia, Turkana and Samburu counties, in northwestern and central Kenya, cattle raids have escalated, fuelled by the proliferation of small arms smuggled into the country. A 2015 Kenya Police report indicates that cattle raiders’ weapons originate from neighbouring countries with internal strife, particularly Somalia and South Sudan.
In recent years, the raids have grown deadly, with a sharp rise in the number of people killed during attacks. Gangs of gun-slinging raiders usually storm villages at night, shooting people on sight before driving away entire herds of cattle, sheep and goats, leaving entire communities devastated.
According to the most recent Kenya Police report from 2015, more than 24 people were killed in cattle rustling violence in that year, while nearly 25,000 livestock were stolen in 56 raids. Yet local media reports suggest that the number of people killed could be far higher. In May 2015, AFP reported that 75 people were killed over a period of just four days.
In November, Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, oversaw the destruction of at least 5,250 guns recovered over the past nine years, a fraction of the estimated 500,000-plus illegal firearms in the country – most of which are owned by pastoralists. Disarmament efforts have so far yielded little progress.
Mochongoi lies where much of the violence is concentrated: along the borders between the districts of West Pokot, home mostly to the Pokot tribe, and Baringo in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Herders there, tired of waiting for the government’s help, feel they have no option but to arm themselves. They buy AK-47s, but also more powerful guns such as M16s and G3s, to protect their families, their livestock and also to take back their stolen animals.
In the mostly lawless Suguta Valley, an area which the local media have dubbed the “Valley of Death”, the ethnic Turkana, Samburu and Pokot are both victims and raiders, and cattle rustling has led to revenge attacks. The area goes unpoliced after one of the deadliest attacks on Kenyan police in 2012, in which 32 policemen pursuing stolen cattle were ambushed and killed.
Sixty-year-old Arap Chebon Lochumunyang’, a cattle owner from Richard’s village, home to about 200 people, says that the Endorois (a Tugen subtribe) did not own guns for a long time and were frequently attacked by armed Pokot bandits, who had earlier access to guns.
In the past five years, the Tugen started arming themselves. While raiders often come at night, they sometimes strike during the day.
It was a sunny afternoon in March 2015, when, just as Chebon was just sitting down to a meal at home, he heard a burst of gunfire.
His eldest son, 35-year-old Elijah Nasorot, also heard the shots. He ran with his AK-47 to confront the gunmen while his parents, children and two wives headed in the opposite direction into the hills, driving their livestock, some 50 cattle and 100 sheep, as fast as they could.
As the villagers fled, Elijah, his brothers and about 20 young men from their village fought the Pokot attackers. There were more than 50 raiders; they often strike in large numbers.
Two hours later, the guns fell silent.
The men from Sinoni, some wounded, had lost and escaped from the village. The better-armed, battle-hardened cattle raiders stole hundreds of livestock.
After the fight had ended, a young man who had fought alongside Elijah came to Chebon with bad news.
“He told me that my son had been shot and had died on the spot. It was very painful to lose a son at such a young age,” says Chebon, a tall man with stooped shoulders, whose son had five children all under the age of ten.
With difficulty, Chebon arranged his son’s funeral from the bush. When the time came to bury Elijah, the mourners emerged from hiding to hurriedly conduct the funeral on a slope near his home.
Afterwards, people from Sinoni and from neighbouring villages, fearing more attacks, went to stay with relatives in the hills of Mochongoi, while some men remained at Sinoni.
That night, gunmen struck again. They killed an elderly woman who had stayed at home and took more livestock.
The violence has affected the everyday lives of the people who live in Kenya’s cattle-raiding areas.
People have been displaced, impoverished and children’s schooling disrupted. A once busy livestock market at Kapindasum village in Baringo County has been deserted for the past year because of the violence. The people of Sinoni and the surrounding villages also burn wood to sell as charcoal – displacement has made it hard to continue this practice.
Cattle raids have led to prolonged and bloody clashes between communities as aggrieved villagers often try to retake their livestock.
“I have lost friends and neighbours in battle when we go to recapture our livestock,” says 36-year-old Sinoni resident Noah Kibaron, who says he has fought in 27 gunfights while defending his village or retrieving stolen animals.
Three days after Elijah’s funeral, Kibaron, and Tugen youth from Sinoni and other villages, went on a mission to steal back the livestock from the Pokot.
They tracked the raiders and took them by surprise while they were out herding the stolen animals. A gunfight ensued and three Pokot men were killed. As the Pokot ran for backup, Tugen men drove the livestock back to Sinoni.
They managed to recapture dozens of cattle, but the Pokot decided to pursue them later that day.
That afternoon, Chebon’s son Nelson Nasorot hired a motorbike taxi to take him the town of Marigat, about 50km away, where he planned to buy household items for his family.
He did not know that a group of Pokot warriors was pursuing the recovered livestock and the herders.
They spotted the motorbike and its Tugan passenger and shot from behind, killing Nelson immediately.
“It was more than painful. I can’t even describe how it felt to lose two sons in such a short time. I was devastated,” says Chebon, whose family once again came down from the hills to hold a funeral.
According to Kibaron, the guns are readily available, but are expensive.
“The AK-47 goes for 80,000 shillings ($800) and is sold by people we know. Some sell a bull or sheep to buy one,” he says.
Kibaron says he does not know who exactly sells the guns, but alleges that they’re brought into the town of Rumuruti in bordering Laikipia County by Somali traders who come to buy cattle at the market.
“I think the guns come from Somalia and South Sudan,” he says.”That is what I have heard people saying.”
Despite their high price, almost every herder in Sinoni and the neighbouring villages owns guns. Their livelihood, supplying major towns with livestock for slaughter, means they can often afford to buy at least one gun per herder.
Bullets are also expensive. Richard, who at eight years of age learnt how to use the family gun bought by his father, says the bullets cost 100 shillings ($1) each. He said he has to be careful not to waste the rounds.
Kibaron and Richard allege that the bullet sellers get some of their supply from the police. Residents of Sinoni believe corrupt police officers stationed in camps in cattle-raiding hot spots sell ammunition to both raiders and herders.
They also believe that some of the Pokot thieves are hired to raid by wealthier livestock owners.
“We once found a very new gun on a raider we killed. They have a lot of bullets and can fight for very long, unlike us who have very little bullets because they are expensive. I think there are rich people who provide them with guns and bullets,” Kibaron says.
With raids occurring several times a year and sometimes as often as a few times a month along the border area between Baringo and West Pokot, the government set up two police camps, including one last year near Sinoni.
The residents of Sinoni village, however, feel that the police are not doing enough to stop them from being attacked. They say the police fear the bandits, but also have little motivation to do their job because of isolated and poor working conditions – many deployed police are reportedly junior officers and don’t have adequate food or water supplies.
Chebon says that the police have yet to investigate his sons’ killings and that his cattle have never been recovered.
The people of Sinoni feel marginalised and neglected by the government.
“Nobody is looking after us here. We are on our own and that is why people are buying guns,” Chebon says.
In April last year, Kibaron called the police camp, located just three kilometres away, while their village was being attacked.
“It was around midnight and they told me they were coming but they didn’t show up until eight the next morning,” he says.”They came, picked up bullet casings from one of the homesteads and left.”
Earlier this year Sinoni residents returned to their village in the warmer lowlands. Chebon says their cattle were dying in the cooler climate of the hills. But they feel uneasy at home. Chebon wishes that the government could provide adequate security for them.
Al Jazeera contacted the Kenya Police twice requesting an interview, but did not receive a response.
Chebon is not opposed to disarmament, which has been successful in parts of West Pokot on the Kenyan-Ugandan border, where the two governments worked together.
“If it is done for everybody so that we all do not have guns and can’t steal from one another, then we can rear our livestock without fear,” he says.
Cattle raids have left many pastoralists in Kenya’s north poor and the victims have had enough.
“I was once rich, but I now have very few cattle,” Chebon says.”We are tired of running away from home and losing livestock and children.”
Follow Anthony Langat on Twitter: @ AntonyKip