Saturday, May 22, 2010

Wagalla massacre: The anatomy of atrocity in North Eastern

Compared to many African, Asian and Latin American armies, Kenya’s armed forces have won plaudits from critics for generally knowing their place in society since independence.
Save for 1982, they have known that they belong to the barracks and should leave those premises on hostile operations only by orders of their elected civilian bosses.
They have spared Kenyans the misery of coups and counter coups.
They have also alleviated the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans, especially in far flung areas, by sinking boreholes and providing medical relief services.
And not least is the fact that some of the greatest athletes to blaze the tracks of the earth for the last 50 years have emerged from the ranks of Kenya’s armed forces.
But our armed forces also have skeletons in their cupboard.
Wagalla is one such.
For years since independence, units of the Kenya Army, often supported by the Air Force, did rotational tours of duty in North Eastern Province to combat banditry and rid the civilian population of illegal firearms.
All infantry battalions of the Army either inherited from the colonial forces or formed after independence have undertaken combat operations in the province, beginning with the suppression of the secessionist war known as the Shifta campaign.
What came to be known as the Wagalla Massacre took place in February 1984.
Wagalla is a small locality in the arid wilds of Wajir District whose principal feature is an airstrip. The nomadic inhabitants of this place are predominantly members of the Degodia clan of the Somali people.
It is these people whom security forces concluded were in possession of illegal arms and were using them to commit acts of banditry.
It remains unclear whether the decision to disarm these people in the way things ultimately turned out was made at Defence Headquarters or Harambee House or whether it was a field operation decision made on the ground.
Says Dr Musambayi Katumanga, a University of Nairobi senior lecturer in political science and security affairs expert who also teaches at the National Defence College: “History is always subject to re-interpretation because of the passage of time and the availability of new information.
“To construct the truth of Wagalla would require total Government commitment. This would entail the institutional cooperation of the military.
“Getting to the bottom of this ugly episode would require anthropologists, archaeologists and forensic scientists to establish the truth of the deaths that occurred there.
“It is not in question that a decision was made in Nairobi to disarm those people. What is unclear is whether what happened went according to the orders or the operation ran amok on the ground.
“Only the minister for Defence can clear the air before a formal panel such as the TJRC.”
Says a retired army officer: “The battalion that carried out the Wagalla operation was 7KR. The officer of the rank of Major who led the operation has since died. Many have died too, but there are also many who are still alive.
“However, one thing I can assure you is this: you won’t get somebody to talk to you about Wagalla. Everybody who was there wants to forget it. It was a very, very bad thing.”
The 7KR - in full 7th Battalion, the Kenya Rifles – is the Kenya Army’s infantry unit based at Nairobi’s Langata Barracks.
The unit was formed in June 1968. It received its regimental and presidential colours in December 1970.
Its official resume proudly proclaims its bestowal of the Freedom of the City of Nairobi in 1973 and its selection as the unit to host out-going Commander-in-Chief Daniel arap Moi’s farewell ceremonies on December 30, 2002.
Its maroon colours have been immortalised in the hearts of many Kenyan music lovers by the timeless musical group, Maroon Commandos, which is made up of servicemen from this unit.
Maroon Commandos was formed in October 1970. 7KR’s motto is: “Man to Man, I am The Best.”
It is quite instructive that whereas Army records freely indicate the North Eastern Province operations of all infantry battalions across the years, the same does not apply for 7KR.
Yet it is a fact that it was this unit that relieved 9KR from the Wajir theatre of operations in February 1984.
Official records just show that 7KR was engaged in its first combat operations against Ngoroko cattle rustlers in Turkana district in January 1969.
Though Wagalla was a catastrophic event, it was part of a process. Says this ex-officer: “Wagalla was only the biggest and bloodiest operation that we carried out. There were many more but of a lesser scale.
“To tell you the truth, we had a very big problem with one cultural trait of the civilians there: their secrecy. Nobody knows how to keep a secret better than them.
“We could ask an old woman with a child strapped on her back whether she knew where the men hid their weapons. We always drew a blank. Yet at times the guns were concealed right inside her dress. Because of terrible pressure from Nairobi to show results, nerves were getting frayed among the officers and men.”
This officer makes a blood-cuddling admission – they shot many women, some with children on their backs long before Wagalla.
It is more than 10 years since he left the army but he speaks with extreme discomfort and reluctance, notwithstanding the fact that he is assured absolute confidence.
“During our tour there,” he says, “I made it a point to give all my soldiers of Somali origin off when it came to combat operations.
“To watch their women shot, and to hear their dying words, was beyond what somebody could take. There were many psychological disorders as a result of those operations.”
So what exactly happened at Wagalla?
“I was not in 7KR and I wasn’t in that operation,” he says. “But many of my colleagues were and we all know what they did.”
He pauses for a while and strikingly starts to rationalise the carnage even if he is under no obligation to do so.
“There are soldiers who will also need help because of what they did. TJRC can help a lot.
“Some people have seen the Light of Jesus and have become saved but I am sure they still won’t talk. I can tell you their names but don’t even bother trying. It is very difficult.”
According to this soldier, when all efforts to peacefully disarm the locals failed, a decision was made to do it with “maximum force”.
He says: “What I honestly didn’t get to know was whether the orders came from Nairobi or they were issued locally.
“From my own experience operating there, I guess it was a local order. Nairobi was too far and after strategies and plans have been laid, armed conflict always comes down to a fight between two men staring at one another.
“You kill me or I kill you. Decision is instant.”
The local men were herded on the tarmac of Wagalla airstrip. It is impossible tell how many they were.
All accounts indicate they were in the upper hundreds and it is quite plausible that thousands eventually died.
Independent accounts are sketchy.
The airstrip was surrounded by soldiers armed with general purpose machine guns and G3 rifles.
The men were told to produce their weapons. Many protested that they didn’t have any weapons. That was a wholly unacceptable answer.
The men were stripped naked and allowed to bake in the 40-degrees Celsius heat for hours on end. For people of that culture, this was supreme humiliation.
They were not allowed food or water. From the time they were rounded up, the beatings with rifle butts were continuous.
Those who were foolish enough to question the humiliation were summarily shot in full few of their fellow prisoners.
There many deaths by the second day. Some had died of the beatings and gun shots.
Some had convulsed in the heat and simply passed out. But amidst all this, there were still others who dared stand up for manly honour.
A horrible fate awaited them.
Their hands were bound behind their backs and loaded into a helicopter. The chopper rose and hovered above the prisoners. At some point, the bound men would be pushed out of the open door.
They fell to their deaths hundreds of feet below as other men watched, awaiting their turn. This was repeated several times.
At about the fourth or fifth day, it occurred to the surviving and famished prisoners that nobody would leave this place alive.
And indeed this seems to have been the plan. Another officer offered only one contribution to the recollection of Wagalla. He said: “Nobody was supposed to leave that place alive.”
As if taking cue from the prisoners depicted in the movie “Escape From Sobibor” – a depiction of the dramatic escape from one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious death camps - Wagalla’s tragic survivors started running in all directions.
At first the soldiers, who were also exhausted from the beatings and killings, were too surprised to react. And then they did.
A hail of fire was sprayed in the directions of the fleeing men. Many fell. But some survived.
And it is their narratives that told the world what had happened there.
Because they come from a traditionally marginalised area of Kenya, their stories elicited only lukewarm reaction from the rest of the Kenyan population.
Even today, the tragedy of Wagalla excites few Kenyans. Had it happened to a “mainstream tribe”, this is a story that would be told over and over again. It would never leave the political discourse.
TJRC sources, confirmed by Betty Murungi and Ronald Slye in their Sunday Nation piece, affirm that when asked if he was ever in Wajir, Bethwel Kiplagat replied that he could not remember.
Says the retired officer who recounted most of this story for us: “There is no way you can forget a trip like that one. You cannot forget visiting places like Wajir, Pokot and Turkana. It is impossible to forget as long as you live.”
In a heart-rending moment of introspection, and in very few words, this ex-soldier makes a compelling case for a TJRC: He says: “Do you know that the perpetrators sometimes suffer more than the victims?
Silver lining
“What happens when you have had a change of heart and there is no safe mechanism to let out your suffering? Some of my friends have lived in that prison since 1984.” And those words again: “It is very difficult.”
As it has been said, every cloud has a silver lining.
For the people of Kenya, in whose name this horrible act was committed, there is a saving grace from the story of Wagalla and 7KR.
Through the presidencies of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi, the state agency that came to symbolise torture as an instrument of governance was the Special Branch.
Nyayo House and Nyati House, their lairs, were Kenya’s miniature Gulags. Many Kenyans’ lives were shattered there.
At the height of the Mwakenya terror campaign, the Special Branch could count as its ideological soul mate ignominious outfits such as Idi Amin’s State Research Bureau.
Abductions and disappearances were all part of a normal days’ work. It banished its name and terror practices under the leadership of Brigadier Wilson Boinet and became the professional National Security Intelligence Services it is today.
Kenyans have not remotely connected the NSIS with torture. Brigadier Boinet was a product of 7KR. He was the unit adjutant in 1979.
roygachuhi@gmail.com
Daily Nation

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