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Inside the Suguta valley of death

Saturday, November 17, 2012 - 00:00 -- BY KURGAT MARINDANY
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AGHAST: Police officers at the Chiromo Mortuary in Nairobi yesterday carry the bodies of some of their 42 colleagues who were killed by cattle rustlers in Baragoi, Samburu, in a gun battle last Saturday. Photo/AFP

The year is 1995. As an investigative journalist, while I was working for a local daily in Nairobi, I traversed the North Eastern province and the hardship areas of Moyale, Baragoi and even into the dreaded Suguta Marmar valley known for its fiercest bandits.

My main objective was to understand the terrain in those areas after coming under government criticism that I was not reporting correctly on matters of banditry in northern and north eastern Kenya.

It was during that period that bandits in the two regions had heightened their attacks on villagers and security personnel posted there. I had been warned by State House against reporting negatively about the security system in Kenya and President Daniel arap Moi through the then North Eastern PC had warned me of dire consequences.

Just a day, after receiving a State House warning, a military base commandant at the Garissa Military Camp invited me for a familiarisation trip in their chopper locally called *Waiwai.*

Our trip in a gunner chopper began in Garissa where we flew to Wamba on the border between Garissa South and Coast province. We then flew to Liboi, Wajir and Mandera.

On the trip, the army CO showed me how expansive the borderline between Kenya and Somalia is. He indicated that the borderline is so porous that illegal guns could come into the country unrecognised by our security personnel.

At the end of the trip, that I had reluctantly accepted, I realised that many arms could come into Kenya through many fronts and especially Somalia that had warlords who were fighting over resources and towns after the fall of former President Siad Barre.

After touring North Eastern both by air and ground

After my reporting of banditry activities changed forever and the police and the army alike enjoyed my reports which they said were balanced.

In terms of terrain, Baragoi and Suguta Marmar are quite different from those of North Eastern and the western side of Somalia. In my many missions to this vast region that is infested by bandits I traversed for miles in a terrain of sand, sand dunes and occasional black rocks scattered on the ground while, others formed a high perimeter fence which broke the monotony of this scenario.

I had read many stories about bandit attacks in Wamba and wanted to discover more about this dreaded Wamba. It is a small town in Samburu district of Rift Valley province in central Kenya.

It is located on the south-south west edge of Mathews Range, and northwest of Samburu National Reserve. With a four-wheel drive vehicle you can comfortably travel for a day or two from Nairobi at a moderate speed but be ready to contend with gun wielding bandits.

While the land in North Eastern is fairly flat, the terrain in Isiolo, Turkana, Samburu, Baringo, West Pokot and Marsabit are hilly and rocky regions. Baragoi is in Samburu county and lies along the Suguta Valley that stretches from Amaiya and extends to the tip of Lake Turkana.

Hot spot of banditry activities

The entire area, which is a hot spot of banditry activities, is inhabited by Samburus, Turkanas and a small population of Pokots who live on the side of Baringo North. Incidences of cattle raids are rife here.

In Marsabit county, Rendile and Boranas have been fighting, for years, over pasture and water points. The Garre and Ajuran fight with Samburus over grazing fields. In Baringo county, Turkanas have become pests as they seasonally steal livestock from the Endorois and Ilchamus tribesmen.

They also steal from Tugens. In all those areas, the locals cannot survive without livestock which they depend on 100 per cent. But how will they have to live with banditry activities in this vast region?

Simple, equip your members with all manner of weapons including guns if you want to remain relevant. In Kenya, one cannot own a gun without a valid permit that has been issued by the Firearms Department with approval of the police.

In North Eastern and in Samburu and Isiolo and even in the Tana Delta, laws of the jungle are applicable. While I was in Wamba in 2009, word reached me that very early in the morning a group of Pokot entered a ritual enclosure near Suguta Marmar and killed 23 Samburus, “many” of them women and children and wounded about 20 more.

Between nine and 11 Pokots were also killed. No cows were taken, though quite a few animals were killed by bullets. The nature of the attack, killing women and children, guarantees that the Samburu will retaliate, even without stolen animals.

These have been common headline stories coming out of Suguta Marmar and Baragoi in Samburu county for many years. Those areas have been in the news for queer reasons. People have been slain here as the government watches from the other side of the fence.

But what happened last Saturday will go down in the history of Kenyan  banditry activities that claimed close to 40 police officers in the line of duty.

Responding to an earlier attack

The officers were responding to an earlier attack by Turkana raiders on Samburu pastoralists that left some people injured and a number of livestock stolen.

 Baragoi is a market town in Kenya, lying north of Maralal and east of Suguta Valley. It is part of Samburu district. The entire Baragoi
division has a population of nearly 20,000 (1999 census) comprising mostly people from the Samburu and Turkana tribes.

The death toll in Saturday’s bandit attack on police in Baragoi, Samburu county, rose to 37 after more bodies were discovered. Thirty of the dead were said to be police officers while seven were home guards. Six police officers are missing.

Some of the bodies were flown to Nairobi as the parliamentary committee on security called on the government to respond forcefully to the attack by suspected Turkana cattle rustlers.

It is one of the worst attacks on security forces in many years. Eight officers died in another attack on security personnel in Tana River in September, prompting a massive security operation in the area.

Seven bodies were discovered on Monday in a thicket in Baragoi division of Samburu county, bringing to 37 the number of security forces killed in the Saturday ambush. However, according to police sources, the total number of the law enforcement officers who died during the attack at Lomirok village is 30. The others are Samburu home guards.

Search and rescue mission

Military helicopters were called to help in the search and rescue mission. The attack took place near the Suguta valley, a harsh and dangerous area.

Rift Valley PC Osman Warfa, who led a team of top regional security committee members, declined to discuss the issue. Warfa rushed to the area in a police chopper accompanied by Rift Valley provincial police officer, John M’Mbijiwe.

They first held a closed door meeting in Baragoi before flying back to Nakuru. The Turkana gang ambushed a combined force of General Service Unit personnel, Rapid Response Unit, Anti-Stock Theft Unit and regular and administration police officers who had gone to Lomirok to recover stolen animals.

They had driven into the village accompanied by Samburu home guards to recover more than 450 heads of cattle Turkana raiders had stolen.

Meanwhile, the nine police officers among them three police reservists injured in Baragoi are recuperating at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH).

The hospital said the officers are in a stable condition and some will soon be discharged. This comes as reinforcements of a combined force from the military and police is deployed to Baragoi to deal with the situation.

On Monday this week, community leaders in Turkana said during the encounter between the security forces and rustlers, four people from the village were injured.

Most of the members of the Turkana community in Baragoi have fled; fearing reprisals after 12 Samburu people were killed in an earlier incident.

The Samburu had on October 30 decided to go to Lomirok to recover the 450 cattle the Turkana raiders had stolen from them on October 20.

They were ambushed by the Turkana and 12 Samburu warriors killed. Tension remained high in Baragoi with leaders calling on the government to devise another method of fighting cattle rustlers.

“The killing of the security officers is a clear indication that police are inadequately prepared to handle such cattle rustlers. We need a special police force for this - even if it means restructuring the Kenya Police Reservists,” Hilary Halkano who works with an NGO in northern Kenya said in a statement.

He said it is the Kenya Police Reservists (KPR) locally known as home guards - who normally recovers stolen animals since they know the terrain of the area.

The Independent Policing Oversight Authority announced it would investigate the operation and why it went wrong. “The Board is extending its deep felt condolences to families of the slain officers and wish quick recovery to the injured officers,” a statement from the authority said.

Decisive government action

The chairman of the National Security Committee, Fred Kapondi, said the attackers should be made to “feel the heat” of decisive government action.

“The government should come out in full force. Let the bandits feel the heat. Let them feel the strong arm of the law,” Kapondi said in a press conference at Parliament Buildings. He urged the government not to pay attention to expected complaints from
leaders in Baragoi if strong action is taken.

But what really makes the terrain of killing fields of Baragoi unique? First of all, roads leading to Baragoi and Suguta Marmar which are the most feared bandit-prone areas are impassable making it very difficult for the security forces to penetrate every time there is a problem there.

Secondly, the bandit infested areas have a hiding forest in the Suguta Marmar valley that no security officer have dared to get into for fear of lethal attacks from armed gangsters, who are said to posses superior weapons than our own security personnel.

Thirdly, tales are rife that livestock stolen either from the Pokot, Turkana or Samburu taken into the “magic” valley normally come out with different colours. For example, a white cow will turn completely black on entering Suguta Marmar Valley.

When I joined some local and foreign journalists, in the 1990s, on a mission to unveil the myth of the valley, our pilot refused to fly over the valley for fear of an attack by missile-carrying bandits who rule the region.

We came back without any story because the people we talked to avoided answering questions about the magic valley. The numbers of people, among them security personnel, who have been killed or disappeared mysteriously in the killing fields, have not been confirmed by the government because some cases normally go unreported.