News 2008


Atrocities in Mount Elgon affect Ogiek

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 scorched-earth policy.

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 of ashes.

"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.

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 investigate.

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 of Forests.

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…