Kenya Tana Delta massacres raise election violence fear

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Media caption,

The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse: "They set fire to the villagers' huts, then they hacked them to death"

Deadly clashes in Kenya have raised fears that elections in March could again be violent as politicians exploit tribal rivalries, reports the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse in the Tana Delta. One minister has been sacked from the cabinet, accused of inciting conflict in the Tana Delta region. More than 100 people have been killed there in the past month in clashes between two rival communities.

In the village of Kilelengwani, the morning of 10 September began just like any other Monday.

Then suddenly, says Ismail Bodole, a resident of this small settlement of several dozen thatched mud houses, the place was surrounded by a group of armed men.

"They were many," he says. "They had red scarves tied around their foreheads. They were shouting, 'Kill, kill, kill!' That was their roar."

The attackers were several hundred strong. Some were armed with guns, but most carried spears, machetes, or bows and arrows.

They set fire to the villagers' huts. Then they hacked them to death: men, women and children, indiscriminately.

At a hospital in the nearby town of Malindi, we met Jamila, a survivor of that attack. She is eight years old. The left side of her face was slashed from ear to mouth: a machete wound, a doctor said.

Jamila's condition was stable, he added; she would pull through. She was too traumatised to speak for herself.

Stench of death

Days after the attack, the stench of rotting flesh still hangs over Kilelengwani.

The severed head of a cow lies in the dust, buzzing with flies.

Nearby, a square mound of raised earth indicates the location of a shallow grave, where some of the 38 victims of this massacre lie buried.

Ismail Bodole believes this was no spontaneous outpouring of tribal anger. This was, he says, a planned attack, an organised act of brutality and terror.

Image source, Jonathan Kalan
Image caption,
Five women and two children are said to have been killed in this prayer room of the Kilelengwani mosque

"The attackers were divided into three groups. One group torched the houses. Another would carry off the injured. Then there was a third group whose job it was just to kill."

On one level, this is a conflict over access to land and water.

On one side are the Pokomo people. They are mostly farmers, smallholders who eke out a living growing cash crops by the banks of the Tana River.

On the other are the Orma, semi-nomadic cattle drovers who roam the land in search of grazing grounds for their herds.

In the past, disputes would often be resolved peacefully. But not now.

We met Ali, 25, and Adhan, 19, driving a herd of cattle through the bush. Instead of the usual herdsman's sticks, each young Orma man carried a sharp spear.

"Of course we are afraid," said Ali. "But we have our weapons. If anything happens, we will defend ourselves."

Adhan said he wished he had a more effective weapon.

"Some of them [the Pokomo] have guns as well as bows and arrows. But I only have this spear.

"I haven't killed anyone with it," he added, "but we have wounded many."

Scramble for power

The killings have left more than 100 people dead on both sides. Thousands have been forced to flee their villages, living in makeshift shelters or on the outskirts of the larger towns.

On Saturday, in the town of Garsen, a crowd of several hundred gathered under the shade of a tree as religious leaders led prayers for peace.

A number of politicians had also come to convey their support for that message.

But land is a valuable commodity in the Delta region, and not just for the relatively small communities who live on it.

As Kenya prepares for elections next spring, many are convinced that political interests are stoking the violence.

"There has been a scramble in the Delta in the last four or five years," says Francis Kagema, a conservationist.

Investors, both Kenyan and foreign, have been acquiring leases on vast tracts of land in the region for the purposes of large-scale cultivation of food and biofuel crops. Getting elected to office can mean gaining control of such lucrative deals.

"Political power is everything in Kenya," says Mr Kagema. "Even foreign investors have discovered how to manoeuvre by getting the right political connections."

The government has, belatedly, sent some 1,800 paramilitary troops to the Tana Delta region to halt the violence.

The move appears to have had an effect: in recent days the cycle of tit-for-tat attacks has abated, though many villagers are still too fearful to return to their homes.

And the wider fear is that, as the scramble for votes intensifies ahead of the election next spring, the killings in the Tana Delta could mark the start of another bloody Kenyan election.

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