On a sunny morning in 1963, a lorry full of military servicemen roared into a dusty village in Isiolo. The soldiers jumped out and started marking houses with what looked like chalk. Residents thought it was some sort of a population census routine, but they were wrong. The Shifta War had begun, and would continue officially for four years and behind the scenes for three decades
The wind whistles deafeningly, violently whipping burqas off women and sending men, their cheeks puffed with miraa (khat), scampering for shelter.
The momentary madness that comes with every gust of wind is punctuated by the drone of motorcycle taxis, popularly known as boda bodas, that ferry people to various destinations in this windswept, yet idyllic town smack in the middle of Kenya.
Welcome to Isiolo, the last of several towns in north and upper eastern Kenya, where the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) has been holding public hearings on human rights violations, and where sad tales are as common as the hijabs on the local women’s heads.
The hearings are a forum for victims to testify about atrocities dating from December 12, 1963 to February 28, 2008.
Not far from the town centre is a poorly planned residential area called Bulapesa, and here we find a woman outside what passes for a bungalow in these parts of the world — a hurriedly constructed and poorly finished house that towers over the scattered shrubs in the neighbourhood.
Despite the harshness of life that is evident in the weak gaze of her eyes, the beauty of her youth has refused to fade away and the scarf over her head only manages, in a very small way, to obscure the radiance of her looks. Her name is Fatuma Ibrahim.
“Shifta! Shifta! Is the government the shifta?” asks the 82-year-old. She is talking about a phenomenon that has baffled generations in Kenya’s northern frontier.
“I have never seen the shifta you are talking about (marauding Somali bandits) in my life,” she says. Fatuma is one of hundreds of victims who survived the Shifta War of 1963 that dragged on for four years.
Like other survivors, she lost her family and property to a conflict that, to many, seems to have been based on mere speculation. For Fatuma, all she saw and experienced was the heavy hand of the Kenyan army.
“They marked our houses. We thought they were counting us. At 2 am we saw army tanks... guns.... They frogmarched us out of our homes.
“Then they burnt our homes to the ground,” she remembers the events of that hot day in 1963 that changed her life forever.
The army, it is alleged, raped women, killed children, plundered livestock, and left many desolate. Forty four years after the end of the war, Fatuma now lives with her daughter and relies on government food rations to survive.
Mr Adam Hussein Adam of the Centre for Minority Rights Development explains that “the word ‘shifta’ comes from the Oromo tongue and means ‘bandit’.”
It was first used by Kenya’s first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, in reference to Kenyan Somalis seeking secession.
Mr Hassan Huka, a journalist and historian of the area, alleges that the Shifta War was ignited by an attack on a Kenyan military convoy between the towns of Garissa and Garbatulla.
“The government got an excuse — Kenyatta got an excuse — to hammer people,” he says. “People were put in concentration camps and anyone outside the camps was considered an enemy of the State.”
The district commissioner Garbatulla, Mr Joseph Onyango, says there was a five-kilometre radius limit of movement in community reserves and anyone caught outside that radius was considered a shifta.
“Three quarters of livestock in the region was lost during the conflict,” he says. The war led the government to declare a state of emergency in the Northern Frontier District (NFD) region, which constituted the seven districts of Moyale, Isiolo, Wajir, Mandera, Ijara, Garissa, and Marsabit.
Unknown to many in Kenya at the time, this state of affairs lasted almost 30 years and went hand-in-hand with the Indemnity Act, a piece of legislation that accorded government officials in the area immunity from prosecution.
That, many say, led to widespread tension, extrajudicial killings, maiming, rape, plunder of livestock, and detention. That, also, was what gave birth to Kenya’s very own concentration camps.
A senior officer in the Kenyan army at the time of the war, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, stated: “Yes, I was among the military officers deployed to mop up the shiftas, who had attacked numerous police establishments in the area.”
He said that what happened in the seven districts over the three decades to the 1990s was a government operation targeting a single community.
“I say this because, through the operation, I realised that the State campaign was not only targeted at the secessionists (shiftas), but also the broader Somali community. Forced vigils, restriction of movement, and livestock confiscation criminalised a whole community, and shifta was the justification.”
“There were four concentration centres,” says Huka. “These were based in Merti, Garbatulla, Bulabesa, and Modogashe, and every one of them had several camps.”
Fatuma spent two years in a concentration camp in Merti and her ordeal, to use her own words, was “painful”.
“I received beatings every day. All of us — women, children, and men — were all the same. We were shiftas in the eyes of our tormentors.
“There was no water in the camp, and life was very hard. Military personnel would remove women’s headscarves and pull us by our hair.
“We watched helplessly as our children were trampled on and killed. Many of the women in the camps were also raped repeatedly.”
Also in Isiolo, 80-year-old Khadija Ahmed Osman recalls her ordeal. The frail woman, now bedridden, is assisted out of bed by her niece for the interview, and when she finally steadies herself, the agony begins to flow.
“They beat us at the camp,” she says. “They ripped the clothes off our backs and exposed our nakedness. They told us to kneel down and pray for our souls. And then they beat us even more with the butts of their rifles.”
The greatest pain for her, however, was the child she lost while attempting to escape from the camp. She had strung the little boy on her back and as she ran, he fell to the ground and was trampled to death by the pursuing soldiers.
Isiolo district commissioner James Waweru says the shifta was a guerilla movement that had to be stopped, and that government intervention in the area was limited to the secessionists.
Mr Waweru says the first district commissioner in the area, Mr Daudi Dabaso Wabera — a native of the area who was posted to Isiolo in 1964 — was killed by the shiftas. “They thought he was pro-Kenyatta, pro-government,” he says.
In Garbatulla District, a semi-arid expanse 250 kilometres from Isiolo, a fiery bearded man shares his trauma at the camps. Mr Gobo Guyo, also 80, was aged 36 at the time.
The army came for him in his village. “All the Boranas (a Cushitic ethnic group) were rounded up. Those who couldn’t move, the sick, elderly or young, were shot. Seventeen died on the spot, and then the servicemen burnt our houses.
“Women were raped and some abducted. No one, even today, knows where they took our women, our girls. No one knows whether they are dead or still alive. The government did this to us.”
Guyo says there were four mass graves, one for each camp, in the concentration area of Garbatulla. And here those who died of starvation, disease, and other causes were buried by their fellow detainees.
The TJRC recently completed 32 days of hearings for the north and upper eastern part of Kenya. The acting chairperson, Ms Tecla Namachanja Wanjala, said she believed strongly that justice would prevail and that the truth would finally come out to haunt the perpetrators.
“A summary of the findings and recommendations needs to published in three national newspapers and, according to the Act, all the recommendations have to be implemented,” affirmed Ms Namachanja.
That promise gives the victims of the Shifta War a ray of hope, and 70-year-old Iman Tari Abkula sums up the pregnant anticipation in Isiolo: “We are not proud of the past government. But now we are fine. We are being heard now. Everything will be fine.”