News 2008


Once a source of livelihood, Kabolet Forest now brings death to villagers

Daily Nation

Story by KEN OPALA

06. March 2008

In the heart of Trans Nzoia East district is a settlement of 3,000 members of the Sengwer community also known as the Cherangany.

According to a local dialect, Cherangany means sunrise but the people of this area have been living in the shadow of death due to frequent attacks by militiamen.

The Sengwer, who live on the edges of Kabolet Forest, were settled there in the 1980s by the then President Daniel arap Moi, after he hived off part of the forest.

Last week, a handful of them held a meeting at Amani primary school, where they lamented over their dwindling fortunes — no thanks to insecurity.

“We have nothing left,” said Mr James Arap Chebii, a community elder in charge of security. “Our people have been robbed and shot dead by raiders from this forest.”

Once, Kabolet Forest was a source of livelihood for the remote village. It is in the forest that dozens of streams originate, providing sustenance for the people and their animals. The forest was also the source of building materials and pasture. But now, it brings death and destruction.

Gunned down

Three weeks ago, raiders emerged from the forest and overran the Sengwer settlement. They killed scores of people and escaped with hundreds of animals. Youths who tried to pursue the raiders were gunned down deep in the forest.

A police post was set up near the village but the 10 officers there can hardly match the firepower of the militia from Alale and Kacheliba areas of West Pokot and Marakwet districts.

Last Thursday, as President Kibaki and ODM leader Raila Odinga were signing a peace pact, 93 pupils returned to Amani primary school. but the other 410 were yet to return, according to Tobias Rawangi, the headmaster. No teacher reported for duty either. All had fled after the militia killed the spouse of one of them in January.

By the end of last month, only one in ten people from the area had returned to their homes. “We found our houses broken into, granaries emptied and our animals taken away,” said Ms Jane Nasimiyu.

“We cannot till our lands, our children are being raped. We are just waiting for God (to rescue us).”

According to her, the police had failed. And not just in Cherangany.

The larger Trans Nzoia – including Kwanza and Saboti constituencies – has been overrun by the militias from Mt Elgon, West Pokot and Marakwet districts. Dozens of people have been killed and livestock stolen in sporadic raids by people dressed in outfits that resemble those of the police. A reported 30,000 cattle have been stolen in just months in Trans Nzoia alone. Villages along the Mt Elgon/Trans Nzoia border – including Gituamba, Salama, Kimondo, Kalaha and Nasianda – have been wiped out by the Sabaot Land Defence Force which operates from the forests of Mt Elgon.

Ruins have replaced homes in Kaibos, Talau and Kaisagat in West Pokot, and in Kapterit, Kamoi, Chesabet and Kapcherob in Marakwet, said Mr Solomon Cherongos, the director of Cherangany Multipurpose Development Programme.

Cattle-rustling is not new in West Pokot and Marakwet. In fact, it’s a tradition for some communities. But frequent assaults by security personnel since 2003 had almost wiped out the raiders. Things turned back last December when militiamen took advantage of the confusion arising from the disputed election results to increase their raids, said Mr Loyford Kibaara, the West Pokot district commissioner.

According to him, the raiders attack areas close to Kabolet Forest and steal animals before retreating into the forest.

“The animals are hidden in the forest for a while before they are taken to markets in Uganda and also here in Kenya,” Mr Kibaara said.

His counterpart from the neighbouring Trans Nzoia East district concurs. “They come in large numbers from the forest, steal cattle and escape back into the forest,” said Mr Seis Matata.

Initially the raiders targeted the Sengwer but “they took advantage of the post-election crisis to target other communities as well”.

Such attacks are possible because of the many guns in civilian hands. A survey by the Kitale Catholic Diocese found that almost every household in West Pokot and Marakwet has a gun. West Pokot alone had 150,000 guns, according to Mr Leonard Barasa, the diocese’s Peace and Justice Commission director. “There appears to be a gun for every three people.”

Incidentally, a gun and a cow are the most important possessions in the region bypassed by the wheels of development for close to 40 years.

Traditionally, rustling was intended to raise dowry (which was about 50 cattle) and to act as security during hard times. Owning cattle was a symbol of status – the more you had the high-placed you were in the community.

“Livestock was a sign of wealth,” said Mr Gilbert Saina, the legal officer at the Kitale Catholic Diocese’s Peace and Justice Commission. “People just stole to have the numbers.”

But times have changed. “Elites are using warriors to steal (for them)” he said. “It has become an economic activity”

The proceeds from stolen livestock are used to arm militias. Warlords could be acquiring guns to buttress their community’s interests and fortunes. In Trans Nzoia, West Pokot and Marakwet districts, some leaders, including politicians and community elders, are staging the raids to fund their militia groups.

The militias have stolen about Sh10 million worth of cattle in West Pokot, according to studies by the Kitale Catholic Diocese.

Massive operation

“In Trans Nzoia, they have been driving away, on average, 250 cattle” in each raid. This translates to about Sh5 million, said Mr Leonard Barasa, the director of Kitale Catholic Diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission.

The police have planned a massive operation against the militia this week.

“We are waiting to see the sunlight,” said Ms Millicent Temor. She was displaced after the raiders escaped with her livestock on January 15.