Atrocities in Mount Elgon affect
Update July 11th 2008.
The acrid smell of burning suffused the air of Chebong'weny today
and palls of smoke dotted the horizon and disappeared over the
brow of the hills into Trans Nzoia.
It reminded me of the sights I saw early last year when the SLDF
were destroying homes in Chepyuk.
This time, however, it quickly emerged that the arsonists were not
agents of some criminal militia, but were representing the Kenyan
government. Forest Service askari had torched what I discovered
were something over fifty shambas in the area in a two day
For the displaced people of Chebong'weng this has been the third
time they have been terrorised. They were chased from their plots
in Chepyuk by the SLDF, forced off their new homes in Rift Valley
by the tribal post-election violence, and now are ground into
submission once again – this time by the administration.
At first no one would take responsibility. It was as if the
askaris (soldiers) had gone on a rampage of their own volition.
The truth, however, is that no one will accept they pushed the
button, but no well-trained quasi military unit will
systematically burn down the houses and granaries if hundreds of
people without being ordered to do so.
Little or no notice was given.
On Thursday a few forest service men told the wazee (elders) of
the village that on Friday they would have to leave the place
where they had taken refuge.
"They just said we had to go. They said they didn't care where we
went", said Luca Cheptai as he spoke to me outside what had once
been home to his family of eight, but which was by now just a heap
"Just go up the mountain. Go to Toboo, that is your refuge," was
what Kipsang Kapsiny said he was told to do. This was very strange
as for the past several months the Mount Elgon District
Commissioner has been insisting that people come down from
Chepkitale. Now his Forest Service hit squad is ordering people to
go up. A confused message for already terrified and confused
People in Chebong'weny are confused because no official word was
given them. The District Forester had a meeting with local leaders
in May when they were told they could stay where they were until a
permanent settlement to the land issues was arrived at. No senior
person came with the message to quit on Thursday. No documents
were given. No official letters issued. In fact the askari even
refused to say specifically who had sent them.
This whole enterprise is so reminiscent of the SLDF campaign
strategy early in 2007. They would issue anonymous warnings one
day that they would be "hitting" a particular community the next.
No signatures; no one accepting the blame or the responsibility;
just unsigned threatening letters followed by a day of arson and
pillage. Just that this time there were not even letters. There
was pillage, though.
The government agents were not satisfied with making perhaps a
thousand people homeless and terrorising children, they decided
they wanted to the emulate the SLDF to a much greater extent than
that by stealing and destroying. At least that is the story told
by every person interviewed today.
Assuming every resident of the fifty or more homes was not
reciting an identical lie, then the stories bear a striking
unanimity of truth. The askari stole the maize and cooking oil
brought as humanitarian support to the IDPs by Kenya Red Cross
last week. They stole the blankets brought by the European
Commission. They stole chickens and even the occasional mattress
and oil lamp.
The local Assistant Chief – this area of 600 sq kms does not even
get a full chief to lead its 24,000 people – finds it impossible
to defend the actions of the administration he represents. This is
not surprising as he insists he was not even informed this was
going to happen.
The DC says he knew nothing of it. The Provincial and District
Foresters say they knew nothing of it. The Chief says he knew
nothing of it. Does this mean we have a corps of unled, rogue
people wearing Forest Service uniforms carrying out a campaign of
terror illegally in Chepkitale?
Melsa Chesambu, a widow caring for ten children, who ran here from
Teldet after the election in January, is now going to stay in a
cave a few kilometres away. People can't burn a cave, she hopes.
Ours was the only vehicle in the area today. The administration
must have heard of the incident, yet no one was there to
Just a week ago a team of MPs was at Gitwamba, less than ten
kilometres away. They were there to preach peace to a riven
community. A few days later there is no peace in Chebong'weny.
Just fear, mistrust, confusion and a sense of helplessness.
The uniform message I heard was, "If the government want us to go,
then tell us where to go, provide us with a safe place to go, and
enable us to get there. Give us the means to build and farm there
with the security of title to the land. We have been terrorised
enough: have watched menfolk killed and maimed, our women and
girls raped, our livelihoods and homes destroyed, and our kids
traumatised and left unschooled for two years."
One old man told me that the worst off beggar in Kibera slums is
treated with more respect and gets more attention from the
government and from international NGOs than does the average Ogiek
(the Ndorobo – people of this area).
The chief introduced me to the ultimate example of government
hypocrisy. Ndiema Kirimji showed me a receipt from the Dept of
Forests, signed by the District Forester and dated July 3rd 2008 –
just a week ago. It was for his payment of the due charges to
graze his cattle in the forest. Eight days later his home was
razed to the ground by men wearing the uniforms of that same Dept
The baraza of wazee meeting in the make-shift marketplace at
Chebong'weny expressed nothing but mistrust and suspicion. One
said, "Just when the PC has ordered MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers)
to stop coming here this happens. I don't believe in co-incidences."
Another evinced, "This is a plot begun by the SLDF and now
continued by the government to wipe out the Ndorobo people."
These sentiments may seem unreasonable to the outsider. However,
to the people of Chebong'weny today – traumatised and dazed and
having no idea of what to plan for their futures and that of their
children – these are real thoughts and genuinely held ideas.
And the burning and the threats of burning continue…
CHEPKTALE INDEGENOUS PEOPLES DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME