Chemolingot, Kenya – One May afternoon along a dirt road in a remote swath of Kenya’s Baringo County lay the remains of an elderly man. Wild animals had eaten his flesh, torn off some of his limbs, and dragged his body – now mostly bones. A purple shawl and a yellow football jersey clung to the skeleton.
Witnesses say nine days earlier, several truckloads of police officers raided their village, burning their huts and stealing their goats. Officers then threw rocks at the elderly man who had tried to escape. They loaded him onto a truck, dumped him by the side of the road and shot him.
Reporting by Al Jazeera corroborates witnesses’ accounts that on May 9, Kenyan police murdered 80-year-old Ekurio Mugeluk and left his body to the wild.
Next to the bloodstained gravel where Mugeluk’s body first lay, Al Jazeera discovered a pile of 14, 7.62 × 51 mm cartridge cases – evidence of ammunition fired by a weapon such as the G3-type self-loading rifle which is common in Kenya. The cartridge cases were stamped with markings indicating they were manufactured in 2016 by the Kenya Ordnance Factory Corporation, which operates Kenya’s ammunition plant in the town of Eldoret. That factory does not sell ammunition to civilians and only provides a domestic supply to the Kenyan police and military. Produced just last year, there was a very narrow window of time in which the authorities might have illegally diverted these bullets to civilians.
Three metres from the body lay a pile of seven, 7.62 × 39 mm cartridges – bullets used in AK type self-loading rifles – which appear to have come from the same factory.
Three different forensic experts were shown high-resolution images of Mugeluk’s body and the bullet cartridge cases. A forensic anthropologist with extensive field experience said that several holes in the photographed skeleton were consistent with gunshot wounds, although it is unclear how many of the 21 government-issued bullets struck him. All three agreed that the body had decomposed in a way that fits with the hot climate of the region and the timeframe witnesses provided of his death.
Mugeluk’s murder occurred amid a fight in rural Kenya over grassland and livestock that has been exacerbated in recent months by severe drought.
Today, much of Baringo county is dry and lacks grass for grazing. As herders move their cows, goats and sheep further afield in search of what little vegetation remains, conflicts sometimes ensue between communities competing over resources.
The proliferation of weapons and ammunition has turned these fights increasingly violent, sometimes deadly. Armed gunmen routinely steal livestock and sometimes shoot at their owners in the process. AFP reported that in May 2015, 75 people were killed in one raid. In January, two children were reported killed during a raid that netted 200 goats. Cattle rustling has gone on in East Africa for years, but since late 2016, Baringo County, in particular, has seen thousands of livestock stolen and dozens of people shot or killed.
Police are sometimes injured or killed by rustlers. In 2012, dozens of officers were killed during a shoot-out with cattle rustlers in Samburu County, which borders Baringo. A police chief in neighbouring Laikipia country was wounded by rustlers in February, and in May three police officers were reported killed in Samburu.
It was ostensibly in response to cattle rustling that on May 9, police raided the village of Seretion in an operation to confiscate stolen livestock. Instead, according to villagers, police themselves stole hundreds of goats. Al Jazeera documented three houses that were burned to the ground. After the raid, witnesses say police murdered Mugeluk, who had been out herding camels.
It is rare to find hard evidence of murders by police in areas as remote as this.
“Generally, police in rural areas are very punitive and they act like they’re above the law,” says Otsieno Namwaya, Africa Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “In Baringo, there are two factors. One is that police twist the narrative that they are fighting bandits. Whenever they kill anyone, they say he was a bandit.”
“And secondly, a lot of journalists are not accessing some of these remote parts of Baringo, so it’s only the police’s word that comes out,” Namwaya says. “Police take advantage that this is an area that is totally out of the eye of the public.”
Sometimes police operations look more like lawless raids, Namwaya explains.
“Police move into a village and don’t care whether you are innocent or are guilty. They arrest everybody, beat them up, extort money, destroy property. And cases of killing happen, too.”
Many of the police murders that have been documented in Kenya are targeted killings. In 2014, members of Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit admitted to Al Jazeera that they’d been ordered to illegally assassinate, rather than arrest, suspects in Kenya’s controversial “war on terror” against armed group al-Shabab, resulting in an estimated 500 deaths.
It’s a war that’s been fought by indiscriminately rounding up thousands of foreign-looking people and locking them for days in a Nairobi football stadium, and by threatening to shut down Kenya’s two northern refugee camps, which would uproot the hundreds of thousands of refugees who seek safety there.
Last year, Human Rights Watch documented 45 suspected extrajudicial killings and disappearances related to counterterrorism operations in northeastern Kenya alone.
Other times, police or military officers have killed civilians for no apparent reason. In January 2015, Kenyan soldiers appear to have beaten to death a 37-year-old Muslim man near the coastal city of Mombasa, leaving his body in a patch of woods. The soldiers were never prosecuted.
“Holding police officers accountable is becoming increasingly difficult because there are so many cases of killings,” Namwaya says. “Sometimes, they operate like there is no law.”
The sun had not yet risen when Mercy Chebor heard the rumble of large vehicles approaching. Chebor*, is 39 and has nine children. Her village of Seretion is a collection of huts, some of which are spaced kilometres apart, in Kenya’s arid Rift Valley.
Last June, Rift Valley Regional Coordinator Wanyama Musiambo, who declined requests for an interview, directed police to confiscate livestock from areas where authorities believed stolen animals had been taken. But according to Kenya’s Stock and Produce Theft Act, he had no legal authority to issue such a decree – only a magistrate may do so.
According to a government press release, police were instructed to “round up all animals in that specific area equivalent to the number stolen regardless of whether owners participated in the stealing or not”.
But the stock theft act – written in 1982 and revised in 2012 – appears to violate Kenya’s new, 2010 constitution, which states that “Parliament shall not enact a law that permits the State … to arbitrarily deprive a person of property”.
The Constitution goes on to say that “The rights under this Article do not extend to any property that has been found to have been unlawfully acquired.” But Musiambo’s directive included lawfully acquired property – people’s own cattle – too.
That appears to be what police were doing that morning in Seretion.
“They came very early in the morning while I was still sleeping with my children,” Chebor recalls. “I heard the revving of a car. That’s what woke me up. I saw the headlights. I looked out and saw it was a tank,” she says, referring to armoured personnel carriers operated by Kenyan police. She rushed her children out of the house, telling them to run towards the hills.
“The young one fell down at the door and I put him on my back, and I held the hands of two others,” she says. In the chaos, her three-year-old daughter became separated.
While Chebor was running, assisting as many of her children as she could, she recalled hearing the uniformed officers yell, “Just take the goats! Load them, load them!”
From a hiding place on a hill, she watched officers use a ramp to load all but one – which they shot – of her 200 goats from their pen and into a truck.
Chebor then heard a popping sound and watched her home go up in flames. As villagers fled, police terrorised her neighbours, taking their goats and setting their homes on fire.
Two hours later, the police vehicles (seven or eight of them, according to witnesses) departed northward on the road leading to the town of Chemolingot.
Chebor started searching for her lost child. “At first, I was in mourning for those three days, because I thought the child had been burned down with the hut,” she says.
On the third day, unable to find her daughter’s remains, Chebor took the girl’s shoe – her only possession to survive the fire – to a medicine man to see if he could find out what became of her.
“The medicine man said the child is alive and the shoe pointed to the direction where she had gone. So my husband went to look.”
She says the shoe pointed due west, to a village called Chepormai. To her joy, her husband found their daughter and returned with her. It turned out that when police raided their village that morning, the girl had become disorientated in the dark and another family had helped her escape.
But the police left Chebor and her family with nothing to live on. Their goats, whose milk they used to feed the children or sold in order to buy food, are gone. Almost all of their possessions burned in the fire, from the goat skins they used as bedding, to a cooking pot Chebor boiled tea in.
Police also raided Chebor’s nearby “duka”, a shop where she sold bags of flour and sugar. She said police stole the few bags that remained, as well as a solar panel she’d bought on credit for 16,000 shillings – about $160, a small fortune in these parts.
Chebor speaks eloquently, in a high-pitched tone. She has worried, alert eyes, and her expression hardly changes as she speaks.
When asked why the police did this, Chebor says, they “might have come to follow up on the raiders who were stealing cows from the Tugen”.
The Tugen are a tribe who inhabit Baringo. They sometimes clash with people from Chebor’s tribe – the Pokot – over cattle. But Chebor says the Pokot cattle raiders are not even from this area. “So not finding them, maybe they [the police] just wanted to take out their anger on anyone they will meet,” she says.
Even before the raid, 20 of Chebor’s goats had died from starvation due to the drought. The “police are worse,” she says, “because they came took all the goats. They even burned my house – something that a drought cannot do.”
They also did something else that a drought cannot.
“When they came last week, they killed an old man,” Chebor says. “The police stoned him, then the old man was taken away by a truck. Then, they killed him.”
Sitting in his office in Chemolingot, Assistant County Commissioner Charles Mbole, an administrator appointed by the Ministry of Interior, describes the conflict plaguing the region.
“The insecurity in this place is brought by the cattle rustling, whereby our boys [young men from the area] are normally crossing to the other side. They go there and they steal cows and goats,” Mbole explains. Then, they herd their loot back to this area. The raids, he says, are made possible by guns.
“The guns are not expensive,” Mbole says. “The majority, they are buying guns for protection.”
“Very few individuals go on to steal. A small number of people” – he estimates as few as three young men a village – “[are] causing a lot of problems in this place.”
Mbole says his officers have tried urging community elders to get their young men under control.
“We have tried our very best using churches, the elders to preach peace,” he says. “But we are yet to see results.”
And so, police have reverted to other measures. Mbole explains that there is a police mission under way to curb cattle rustling called Operation Dumisha Amani – Restore Peace.
Mbole says he doesn’t lead operations, which he acknowledges involve confiscating cattle from locals in areas where stolen livestock are believed to be held. When asked about these operations’ protocol, he insists that police officers would never shoot a civilian without a reason.
“The law is very clear, and the officers know the rules and they know how to use their guns properly,” Mbole says. When asked if it were possible that officers could have made a mistake during the Seretion operation, he says, “I can’t tell because I was not in the operation. I don’t know whether he was shot by mistake by a stray bullet.”
Mbole admits it is not normal to see a body lying around these parts. He says that if officers were to encounter a corpse during an operation, they would make a note of it in a police station’s Occurrence Book, where all reports are recorded, and then officers would be sent to investigate.
Asked if it is possible police might kill someone and then intentionally not report it, he admits that it isn’t impossible, but that it would be the public’s job to report police crimes. “The police can’t be everywhere,” he says.
When asked outright if he’d heard that an elderly man was killed by police during the Seretion operation, he says, “Let me say that I heard it, but it was not proven. Nobody has reported it.”
He says he didn’t dispatch officers to investigate because “I can’t send officers to investigate every hearsay. [I] am waiting for somebody to come and report.”
Mbole demurs when asked if we can make an official report, saying it would have to be filed in the Occurrence Book at a different police station in town.
Bently Najoli, the officer in charge of that station, is visiting Mbole’s office that day. “I can’t comment on anything to do with the operation. You have to talk to the county commander [of Baringo],” Najoli says when we ask to file a report.
That evening in an interview over the phone, one of Mugeluk’s sons, 18-year-old James*, describes his father as “a calm person. He wasn’t a joker. He didn’t involve himself in many things.”
Mugeluk had fathered more than two dozen children by three different wives during his lifetime. James says that the morning he was killed, “the mzee had gone to keep an eye on camels not far from home,” referring to his father using the respectful Swahili word for an older man.
A neighbour who owned the camels had asked Mugeluk to look after them.
“On the way, the mzee met with the police near the church at Seretion,” James says. It was outside that small church that witnesses reported seeing police assault Mugeluk.
Another neighbour, David*, witnessed the raid. He says Mugeluk, “tried to run, but couldn’t outrun the police. He was caught.”
After the police had left, “We went to the scene and we saw that they had stoned him,” he says. They “then put him in the car and went to kill him in another location”.
James says his neighbours dissuaded him from retrieving or even visiting his father’s body. Many, displaced by the raid, felt unable to perform the last rites. Others are hardened by the violence, while some – including James – fear that if they touch the body, they will die in the same way.
Besides, James says, nobody has any money for a funeral, which is a community undertaking. He says his father was carrying 7,000 shillings – about $70 – in his coat that day, money he’d earned from selling one of the family’s cows a day earlier. James says neighbours who came across Mugeluk’s remains told him that police had taken the money.
James and his siblings have just two cows and 10 goats left. He says police stole 20 goats in an earlier raid, on April 9.
David, who teaches at a local school, remembers that raid well. In recent months, police “burned a lot of houses in the village, more than 30 houses. We were surprised that even as teachers we have our houses burnt – and we haven’t stolen anybody’s cattle,” he says.
“Even if it is an operation to recover livestock, does burning of houses recover cattle?”
Three people who knew Mugelek refute the idea he might have somehow resisted or threatened police. He never owned a gun or any other weapon, they say, nor would he have had access to one, being too poor to afford it.
Chebor says people here have no money for such things. Besides, “One gun in the face of two tanks and a dozen soldiers? It can’t do much.”
Mugeluk was a “peaceful person. Everyone was his friend here, both the young and the old,” David says. “Many people are saddened by his killing.”
Nearly two months after the raid, with villagers starting to move back to Seretion and schools reopening, the teacher and other neighbours were able to convince Mugeluk’s wives and children to bury the elderly victim, which they did on July 4.
Given, however, the resistance by local police chief Najoli or the government administrator in charge of the area Mbole to launch an investigation, the police officers who murdered Ekurio Mugeluk, raided Seretion’s livestock and burned down residents’ homes, are unlikely to face justice.
*Names have been changed to protect identities