News 2008


Military returns to operation base, but questions arise over their mission

Daily Nation

August 10 2008 at 19:21

In Summary

  • Villagers fear the soldiers are back in the Mt Elgon area to cover up evidence of killings.
  • Security sources said accusations should be levelled at individuals.
  • On this July 31, herders stumbled on decomposing body parts, including five skulls.
  • Area  provincial administration said it was unaware of the bodies but suspect they were dumped there by the SLDF.

Security personnel have returned to an area in Mt Elgon littered with bodies of people thought to have been arrested in the military operation against the murderous Sabaot Land Defense Force (SLDF).

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One of the skulls found at Kamarang’ Hill Forest in Mt Elgon District. Photo/KEN OPALA


The military left Kamarang’ Hill Forest in the heart of Mt Elgon on July 30, 2008, a day before herders stumbled on decomposing body parts, including five skulls.

The open field was used by the soldiers as a launch-pad against the SLDF.

Residents at Kapkota, the main base for the joint military-police Operation Okoa Maisha said the soldiers returned to Kamarang’ last Thursday ostensibly to mop up any evidence that could link them to the deaths of suspects arrested during the operation.

When contacted, the operation’s command promised to carry out inquests into the deaths if families and relatives make formal complaints to police.

“If the allegations are true, we will open inquest files,” said media liaison officer, Charles Owino Wahong’o. “Let’s handle this maturely without causing any unnecessary conflict.”

But security sources said accusations should be levelled at individuals.

“The days for blanket condemnation against the police and defence are gone. Action will be taken against anybody who committed an offence.”

The discovery is likely to add a new dimension to an operation largely seen as effective in uprooting a militia whose brutality claimed 700 lives and displaced half the district’s 160,000 people in just 18 months since August 2006.

Mt Elgon is more secure, residents agree. But human rights groups, among them the state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, say security has come at a huge cost. They accuse the military of arbitrarily killing suspects during interrogation, claims police dismiss.

The military returned to the area on Thursday, an hour after this writer contacted Police Headquarters in Nairobi and the area Provincial Administration.

This writer had visited the area last week and seen decomposing bodies, some concealed by residents who feared security personnel could destroy them to cover up evidence.

“This is our blood, we cannot let his body be destroyed. We have to bury him lest a curse befalls the community,” said a woman who refused to reveal the identity of a dead man for fear of the military.

“It will be prudent to the families who have identified bodies of relatives to make formal reports to police so that forensic tests can be done,” said Mr Wahong’o.

The military camp at Meza was closed when the Government scaled down its presence in Mt Elgon after the SLDF had been routed.

There were several other camps, but the the main one was at Kapkota, less than a kilometre from Toroso High, where slain militia leader Wycliffe Komon Matekwei went to school in 1999.

“The military has been combing the area since yesterday,” said Kroida Bajune, a lawyer for a family searching for four of its members who surrendered to the military at Kapkota but have disappeared.

The family of 55-year old patriarch Sospeter Chebkwesi Cherop went to court to seek his release, together with that of his three cousins. Last week, herders stumbled on bodies that had clothes similar to those the four had been wearing.

“We saw the soldiers with huge flashlights at dawn,” said a resident at Kaberwa, a village at the foot of Kamarang’ Hill. “We fear they will force us to produce the bodies and ensure we do not talk to the media and human rights groups. They recently arrested one of our boys who had taken a lawyer to the scene.”

The soldiers were still combing the area when this writer returned last Friday.

In Kaberwa, at least 10 suspects are feared to have died at the hands of soldiers at Kapkota. Four were members of one family (see related story in this special coverage). Their kin could not locate them although records at the Chesikaki Police Station show that the suspects were “booked out” — a euphemism for handed over — to the military.

A source at the Kapkota Military Base said. “The reports have caused so much discomfort here. There is panic. People have been sent to sort out the mess.”

A woman whose son she says surrendered to the military during the early days of the operation and who has vanished, took this writer to the Kamarang’ Hills and identified a body that, she said, had clothes similar to those of her son. Four other skulls were strewn around the area, covered with thick grass.

“This was the breadwinner of the family. We all looked up to him. He was a good boy. Now he is gone; killed by the soldiers,” the woman said, as she picked up the skull with her bare hands. “Will I ever get the chance to bury him?” she asked.

The previous day, lawyer Bajune, a number of families who suspected the bodies belonged to their kin and a team from the Independent Medico-Legal Uniled by Dr Walter Nalianya had also visited the scene and taken pictures.

“We discovered five skulls and a number of body parts,” said Dr Nalianya. “The brain was decomposing on one of the skulls while tissue such as muscles, could be seen on the others. This means the bodies have not been there for long. They were three to four months old.”

The area provincial administration said it was unaware of the bodies but suspect they were dumped there by the SLDF.

“I have not heard about the bodies. But when it comes to issues of Mt Elgon, you journalists must be fair and independent. The skulls you say you have discovered could be (the work of) SLDF,” said Mohamed Ali Birik, the District Commissioner, Mt Elgon.

“The military has not been associated with any form of atrocities. In fact, members of the public know that the area is more secure than before. The military has brought peace.”