Inside the killing fields of Marakwet, where even the police fear to tread

Monday November 7 2016

Armed men at the Kerio River in Kerio Valley, on the boundary between Elgeyo-Marakwet and Baringo counties, on October 30.

Armed men at the Kerio River in Kerio Valley, on the boundary between Elgeyo-Marakwet and Baringo counties, on October 30. An estimated 20 people have died sporadic attacks began in the valley region late last year. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By FRED MUKINDA
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It is Kenya’s valley of death, volatile at best, murderous at worst.

From a distance, Kerio Valley casts the image of a vast bushland of thorn trees; a grazing ground of both the Pokot and Marakwet communities.

To access this valley by vehicle, one must endure hours of slow driving on perhaps Kenya’s roughest road — a dusty, tortuous, rocky route that meanders round the hills surrounding the valley.

From a distance, the valley is deceptive: dark green and inviting. But here, armed herders carry their deadly AK-47 and G3 rifles to protect their livestock from tit-for-tat raids, a task that was previously carried out with bows and arrows, which have in the past decade, or two, been replaced with military weapons.

For the past one year, the Kerio Valley has been turned into a battleground, forcing Deputy President William Ruto to lead a high-powered security delegation to the region last week. So far, an estimated 20 people have died since the sporadic attacks began late last year.

The Marakwet, who engage in farming besides keeping livestock, have borne the brunt of the conflict, mostly carried out by the nomadic Pokot, who solely rely on animals for their livelihood.

Life in this jungle is brutish, and police, even with a newly acquired fleet of 49 vehicles, fear venturing into its bowels, the site of macabre raids and crime.

Instead, they restrict their patrols and operations between the small trading centres of Tot on the Marakwet side and Kolowas on the Pokot side.
Raiders know this as well — and undeterred, they have made Kerio Valley the lawless terrain it was never supposed to be.

Of the dozens of raids that have occurred recently, police have managed to stop only two, letting raiders get away with an unknown number of livestock after causing death and destruction.

That is the scenario that Mr Ruto came across during his recent tour and the reason he ordered the police to create buffer zones between the warring communities.

SYMBOL OF COEXISTENCE

“The officers should leave their houses at the shopping centres because I do not understand what they are doing there. They must come and erect tents right here on this bridge and live right here,” he said.

While the Kerio River separates the two communities, the bridge the DP was referring to connects them — and ironically, it is no longer a symbol of coexistence. Instead, crossing it marks the success of a raid.

As the Nation established, the absence of police in the jungle means that when a distress call comes in, help would arrive too late — when raiders have already driven away livestock across the river.

The government estimates the number of illegal firearms in this valley to be about 5,000 and ultimatums issued by Rift Valley Regional Coordinator Wanyama Musiambo to surrender them have been ignored.

The increase of small arms in this valley is blamed on the wars in South Sudan, which provides a ready source of ammunition.

The Nation came across herders carrying AK-47 and G3 rifles while escorting their livestock to graze.

And for a small fee, they gladly lend out the rifles to those eager to test them or perfect their shooting skills.

As a result, the sound of gunfire in the valley has become part of the usual jungle clatter. The herders hardly care whether gunfire will attract the attention of police officers.

It is an open secret in this valley that ex-security officers and some politicians are actively involved in the ongoing skirmishes, arming their communities for the tit-for-tat raids.

Ex-officers are said to train their kinsmen on how to handle weapons and at times lead them during gun battles.

“It is too risky going out there without a gun,” said herder Kurgat Akodo, who claimed he is 18 years old although he looks barely 16.

SMALL ARMS

Akodo does not attend school and relies on working on farms or herding. He owns a gun, but on that day he had given it to a friend who was herding goats belonging to a wealthy man. A herdsman like him earns between Sh100 and 200 a day.

There is also deeply entrenched cultural rivalry here — made worse by the small arms.

Youth attaining the age of marriage are required to organise themselves into groups and raid neighbouring communities to steal livestock to pay bride price.

The impact of these raids can be seen at the Marakwet’s Kolowa and Pokot’s Tot market centres.

Previously, the two used to be meeting points of the two communities during the separate market days. Not any more.

“The Kolowa market cannot handle all the fruits harvested and I cannot access the Tot market since the fighting began,” said Samuel Lepangole, a reformed raider who has embraced farming.

He said he was counting losses this year because there was no market for the tomatoes he planted on his 10 acres.

The Nation found his 10 workers harvesting tomatoes, which they later took to their homes because there is no market for them.

“From across the river, the (Pokot) came and shot at my workers on three occasions. Since then, everybody is afraid to come to the farm,” he said.

But there is another angle to the problem that has further complicated the conflict.

The Kapsiro and Kapsiron clans of the Marakwet are at loggerheads over farmlands.

Benjamin Kiprotich, who works at African Inland Church Guest House in Tot, says it used to be a busy centre, hosting numerous conferences and seminars throughout the year, until the violence broke out.

Today, the fighting has reduced Tot to a ghostly place where even some of the workers dare not enter.

Mr Kiprotich was the only worker left at the guest house when the Nation visited last week.

He said the current outbreak of killings and cattle raids started a long time ago among the Marakwet and later sucked in the Pokot. He says the Kapsiro and Kapsiron quarrelled over a farm and that elders arbitrating over the quarrel ruled that the Kapsiron had no right over the property.

Angered by the ruling, the Kapsiron, who have relatives among the Pokots, through intermarriage, sought their help and this sparked the current feud.