Revisiting Kenya’s forgotten pogroms
(Aljazeera.com)-”I wish my life ended that day, I wish I had died there and then,” 75-year-old Mohammed Osman Gosar tells me as he wipes tears from his eyes. We are in the town of Wajir in Kenya’s arid North Eastern Province filming Not Yet Kenyan, a documentary for the Al Jazeera Correspondent series on the volatile history of Kenya’s ethnic Somali population.
Mohammed is referring to February 10, 1984, the day of the Wagalla Massacre – one of the worst atrocities in Kenya’s history. On that day his wife and daughter were raped in front of him by soldiers who then took him to the Wagalla airstrip outside Wajir town. At the airstrip, where hundreds of men were interned, he witnessed soldiers behead his four brothers.
Thirty years later Mohammed cannot narrate the events of that day without crying.
The Wagalla massacre, as the mass murder at the airstrip came to be known, was the result of an effort to disarm Kenyan-Somali clans that were engaged in a conflict over grazing land in Wajir.
Survivors narrate how they were forced to strip naked and lie on scalding pebbles on the ground and held for five days without food or water. Some, they say, were burnt to death when clothes doused in petrol were put on them, while those who tried to escape were shot. The bodies were not buried but instead dumped in nearby bushes where they were eaten by hyenas.
The government maintains that only 57 people were killed but survivors say the figure was in the thousands.
The events of February 1984 remain an extremely controversial and hushed-up chapter of Kenya’s history. It was not, however, the only massacre committed by Kenyan forces against my people, the Kenyan-Somalis.
In fact, just four years before Wagalla, my family and I survived another massacre. This one occurred in my hometown of Garissa, 360km northeast of Nairobi, when, in reaction to the killing of four civil servants by armed bandits, the same security forces that should have protected the lives and property of innocent civilians slaughtered them. As often happened then and continues to happen today, the government fell back on its policy of collectively punishing an entire community for the crimes of a few.
On the evening of November 11, 1980, gunshots could be heard across town and flames filled the air as the security forces began torching homes and shooting almost everyone they encountered. What started in the centre of town soon reached its furthest corners as police and military officers, some atop lorries and others on foot, embarked on their macabre mission.
Along with my mother, sister and brother, I managed to flee our home just moments before it was set alight. My father had been picked up earlier that evening at his place of work and put in jail.
A scene of horror and pandemonium unfolded as all of the town’s residents attempted to escape; some succeeded, others were shot dead.
Witnesses recount how bodies were piled onto lorries until they could take no more and dumped into the nearby Tana River. Those that were not dumped, were taken elsewhere and burnt.
The following morning the entire surviving population of the town was interned at the local football field. But any hope the town’s residents had that those who had killed their loved ones would be punished was quickly dashed when GG Kariuki, Kenya’s then interior minister who had been sent in to manage the aftermath of the massacre, delivered his speech.
“Although some houses were burnt down last night, some people and property destroyed, our forces must be commended for their restraint and the way they conducted themselves at a time [when] they were hunting for the armed bandits who killed the four civil servants,” he said.
“As I was on the plane, I saw many houses were burnt, but that was because our security men were chasing people armed with sophisticated weapons. On an occasion like that a gun does not choose a target.”
The history of brutality meted out to residents of north eastern Kenya can be traced back to the time of the country’s independence. In around 1963, a secessionist movement broke out with the covert and overt support of the Republic of Somalia. It led not only to the Shifta War, but to hostility by the post-independence Kenyan government and further complicated the relationship between the authorities in Nairobi and the Northern Frontier Districts, as the region was then known.
Thus 70 years of hostile colonial neglect was further exacerbated by a secessionist war, the end of which, in the late 1960s, did nothing to improve the plight of locals. Today, the region remains the least developed part of the country.
A tumultuous past
Many years later I found myself – as the first independent journalist from the province – tasked with not only reporting its current affairs but also its tumultuous past. As a reporter for Kenya’s biggest daily newspaper, The Nation, I spent much of my spare time in the library looking for documentation of the major events that had scarred my region. I was shocked by the dearth of material on them.
When I put this to my editor, he decided that both the Wagalla and Garissa massacres warranted being revisited, but that we needed a news peg to do so. We did not have to wait long.
In August 1998, a few days after the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, a plane carrying khat, the leafy narcotic Somalis love to chew, landed at the Wagalla airstrip – the scene of the 1984 massacre. It was the first landing there since the killings and happened because, in the atmosphere of heightened security in the wake of the bombing, the pilot had been refused permission to land at the Wajir military airport.
The residents of Wajir responded angrily, and their ensuing protests gave me a reason to revisit a pogrom the Kenyan authorities would have rather forgotten.
It is a privilege to once again be able to tell the world about the violence inflicted upon my people by those charged with protecting them. Throughout the filming of Not Yet Kenyan, I have asked the different people I have encountered in the province whether they consider themselves to be Kenyan citizens. Almost all answered in the affirmative. And yet, 50 years after independence, through no fault of our own, Kenyan identity continues to elude Kenyan-Somalis.