Killings dampen Kenya independence celebrations

2013-12-09 12:29

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Moyale - Three long wounds where the machete struck run along the skull of 20-year old Abdi Isse, one of scores wounded in a week of ethnic violence in Kenya's remote north.

"They attacked at dawn, shooting anyone and everyone, women and children too, cutting others with machetes," said a relative Adan Hassan, as a nurse in the basic clinic swatted away flies from the sweating patient.

Next door, two men lie with gunshot wounds, one in the leg, the other wounded in the shoulder, with a fist of flesh torn from his back where the bullet exited.

Months of tensions erupted last week between long-time rival ethnic groups the Gabra and Borana, in the frontier district of Moyale, on the northern border with Ethiopia.

Dozens have been reported shot or hacked to death in the northern region, shops have been looted, houses torched and thousands forced to flee for their lives.

As Kenya readies for jubilee celebrations this week for 50 years of independence from former colonial masters Britain, the killings are a stark reminder of the challenges that remain to reconcile deep ethnic and political divisions.

Many say age-old tribal tensions have been exacerbated by politicians, and in a region awash with guns - with war-torn Somalia not far away - clashes here can swiftly escalate.

Bitter memories remain of the carnage that broke out after Kenya's contested elections in 2007 during which over 1 000 were killed.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto are now facing international trial for crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding that violence, charges they fiercely deny.

Machine guns

Moyale town has a Borana MP, but the wider county district has been dominated by the Gabra since elections in March. With a national devolution project bringing in extra powers and budgets for local government, competition for positions has become even more fierce.

"There have been fights with the Borana before, but this is something different," said Hassan, an elder in the Gabra group.

The Borana on the other side of the divided town of Moyale have similar views.

"These guys mean business, they attack us with machine guns, grenades," said Adan Mohammed, who recently graduated in business from a Nairobi university, before returning to his home town some 600km north.

"They are being encouraged by the politicians, so that tribe takes power," he said.

Outside on the rutted and dusty street, an army truck rumbles past, crowded with troops in full combat gear and with a machine gunner posted on top. A military helicopter flies low over the suburbs where smoke still smoulders from torched houses.

On Sunday, two days after the government ordered the army to restore order, residents say gunners from helicopters opened fire on a militia force based in a school perched in a hilltop position inside the town.

But Moyale town straddles the border with Ethiopia, and gunmen are reported to have escaped there.

In Moyale, both sides say dozens have been killed, but no one can give exact figures.

Long-standing divisions  

"Access to the battlefield has been limited," said local Red Cross chief Stephen Bonaya, saying that thousands have fled the town.

"Many have run to Ethiopia, others to the bush to places where they feel safe," Bonaya said, adding that the main road south to Nairobi was cut.

Patrolling on foot in body armour and helmets, the army had appeared by Sunday to have restored calm to the town centre, but the situation outside the town was still volatile.

At Moyale's main hospital, a policeman is carried in by comrades, shot in the thigh and shoulder in an ambush just outside town.

"We entered a village searching for guns and they ambushed us," said George Odur, grimacing in pain as soldiers laid him onto a trolley for surgery, his military fatigues dark with blood.

In the back of the police truck also lies a man arrested after the shooting.

"We know him, he's a Gabra, I know him from school," said one onlooker, as the thin and sweating man shakes his head with his eyes to the ground, telling those who listened he was innocent and that he had not shot any soldiers.

At the hospital, the people are all Borana, since they control this section of town, but the building is almost empty.

"We do what we can," said clinical officer Anthony Muror, one of the few medical staff who dared to stay, as he comes from neither of the warring communities.

The army may have ended the fighting, but the long-standing divisions between the communities will be hard to reconcile.

"Yes, we are all Muslim, yes our language is similar... but these are bad people," said camel herder Ali Mohamed. "I am not fighting, but that is only because I don't have a gun."

Read more on:    uhuru kenyatta  |  william ruto  |  kenya  |  east africa
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