This week marks 32 years since the massacre at the Wagalla Airstrip in what is presently Wajir County. The bloodbath took place over a period of four days beginning on the morning of February 10 and ending on the morning of February 14, 1984 with a stampede and a shootout. All men and boys over the age of 12 years belonging to the Degodia sub-clan of North Eastern Kenya, were rounded up and detained at a newly constructed airstrip in Wagalla, nine miles from Wajir town.
According to Analenna Toneli, 1000 people were killed, but to various community groups, the number was closer to 5000. The Wagalla massacre destroyed a community, changed its social cohesion and placed the burden of regenerating the dead society on the shoulders of widows. This is the worst massacre recorded in Kenyan history. There were other massacres in Garissa, Turbi and Malka Marri but Wagalla remains one of the classic examples of a state run amok and genocidal intentions of a government too inept to exert any meaningful control over the security of its citizens.
Facts and figures of the Wagalla massacre are now etched into the fabric of the history of Kenya. What is probably unknown is that this massacre was a premeditated act of genocide, not a military operation gone wrong. It began at policy level.
It all started with a high level cabinet committee meeting at Harambee House, where the political idea justifying a massacre was mooted. There are no details that emerged from this meeting, no minutes or reports. Even the efforts of the TJRC did not unearth what policy prescriptions were discussed that initiated a process that culminated in the death of so many people. Sources confirm that a meeting took place at Harambee House, in which security issues concerning Wajir were discussed, and that orders were given to the Provincial Security Committee in Garissa to initiate a security operation against a small Somali sub-clan living in Wajir District.
Timing, strategy and resources
The meeting gave authorisation, but the timing, strategy and resources were left to the Provincial Security Committee led by Benson Kaaria who was the PC of North Eastern Province at the time. This committee authorised the District Security Committee to prepare the ground for the military operation. The District Commissioner at the time, J.P. Matui, was on leave. In the available documents and in his own testimony at the TJRC, the acting DC Mr. M.M Tiema, appears to have been used to achieve a predetermined objective.
The final order for the operation was given on February 8, 1984. This was at a meeting held in Wajir by the Kenya Intelligence Committee. The District Security Committee and the Provincial Security Committee were in attendance. This meeting was the crucial source of authority to undertake the major security operation that followed.
The military began on February 10 with, according to Etemesi Report, a signal from the P.P.O of Garissa that read:
“All Degodias plus stock in Griftu Division plus adjacent divisions will be rounded-up and will be treated mercilessly. No mercy will be exercised. You will get more instructions from this HQ in another two days’ time. No nonsense will be accepted. Further instructions will follow on the relief of the stock. Report progress daily”
On that day the military moved into all areas occupied by the Degodia sub-clan and implemented their orders. The Commander of the operation was Major Mudogo. According to the Etemesi Report, the operation had no written “Operational Procedures”. In layman language, the military operation had no rules or limits and the security forces were given a blank order to run riot. And run riot they did. They started detaining people at four o’clock in the morning from all areas in North Eastern and Eastern Kenya. The military was assisted to identify their targets by KANU youth wingers, some from the targeted community.
Early in the operation, the military moved into Bulla Jogoo, a heavily populated section of Wajir. The Ministerial Statement and Etemesi report have their versions of what happened. Survivors have a rather chilling and different story altogether.
Residents ordered to leave their huts
According to the Minister for Internal Security’s Ministerial Statement in Parliament, the military moved into Bulla Jogoo at five in the morning and ordered the residents to leave their huts. By two in the afternoon, the order was not complied with, then “the commander gave orders for the huts to be destroyed”.
Etemesi has a slightly different version of events: by five in the morning the army under the command of Captain Njeru had already placed a cordon around the Manyatta. APs and police then moved in to round up the people. Residents were hiding in their huts due to fear of the security forces. They were given an order to dismantle their homes and move out of the area. By two in the afternoon they had not complied with the order. Then Major Mudogo gave the order for the huts to be burnt.
Survivors say huts started burning at daybreak when the soldiers raided the area.
Government documents which appear to have been doctored after the event and which suffer serious contradictions, say 381 male Degodia were detained.
According to the ministerial report given in parliament, all the people were gathered and detained at a newly constructed airstrip at Wagalla for screening and interrogation. The Etemesi Report says the people were first separated into their various sections for easy identification, then forced to strip naked. Survivors say those who refused to strip were summarily executed in front of their colleagues. One prominent religious leader was the first to be executed after he resisted the order to strip. All this happened on February 10, 1984.
The operation to round up the Degodia sub-clan continued on February 11. People were arrested from their settlements in places far off from Wajir Disrict. Some herders were collected as far away as Jalaqo in Modogashe, Garissa District. Others were captured from Eastern Province and some were napped from near Mandera District.
The net was cast so wide that nobody could escape the reach of the security forces. The Etemesi Report says that those arrested were placed under guard and interrogation continued at the airstrip.
According to the District Security Committee, the large number of those detained made it impossible to interrogate them individually, so they were placed in subsections. In total there were 11 subsections of the subclan at the airstrip. The method of interrogation applied was extreme even for that era.
After being forced to strip, the prisoners were ordered to lay face down on the hot surface of the airstrip, during the hottest month of the year. Temperatures are so high in February that one could get cooked by the sun. Survivors say many people succumbed to heat stroke and this is corroborated by the Etemesi Report which adds that detainees were subjected to “physical beating”. The physical beating, according to survivors, involved the butt of a gun, batons and bayonets. A witness at the TJRC testified that the torture was so extreme that men complained they were sodomized at night. Survivors say people were being beaten to death in front of their colleagues.
To add to their misery, the people were denied food and water. A situation was created at Wagalla Airstrip which for all intent and purposes led to disaster in the following days.
On February 12, the acting DC, Mr. Tiema addressed a public gathering in Wajir. Witnesses say he issued a lot of threats. Official records indicate that he assured members of the public of security in the town and asked them not to panic. In reality the majority of people in town had either been detained or displaced due to fear of the military. The targeted sub-clan was the dominant urban poor in the town and the place looked deserted and desolate. Tiema and OCPD Wabwire decided to have a stroll to Wagalla Airstrip to assess the progress of the operation. They were accompanied another officer, C.M. Mbole.
13 people shot dead in the confusion
Official reports indicate that as soon as the DC alighted from his vehicle, the crowd burst out shouting, some detainees moving towards him and others running away through an opening in the perimeter fence. That is when Wabwire ordered those escaping to be shot. A total of 13 people were shot dead in the confusion. Survivors remember the DC’s visit, the shouting and the brief melee but have no recollection of shooting at this point. The Etemesi Report suggests that due to the difficult conditions they were subjected to, the people were begging for clemency from the DC. Witnesses report that there were many people who were killed in the first three days of the operation and this report of people running away was used to cover up that fact.
The DC jumped into his car and left the venue amidst the cries of the suffering men in the airstrip. Etemesi reports that there were no successes in recovering guns and arresting any known bandits at this juncture. The report goes ballistic on the DC and OCPD for leaving the situation to junior officers and called their action a “cowardly move” lacking “any sense of responsibility”.
On February 13, official reports show for the first time the confusion that was reigning among Wajir authorities. There was a state of “fear, confusion and panic” in the DSC. This is probably because of the sheer number of the dead at Wagalla Airstrip. By this date many people had been tortured to death, others died from heat stroke and a large number were facing death due to thirst and starvation. Since the operation had no clear guidance, there was no way to go forward. Reports indicate that a decision was reached to release the remaining men and transport them back to their homes. The Provincial Security Committee visited Wajir on this date and received a briefing on the situation. They agreed with the DSC’s decision to release the remaining detainees.
The provincial security did not visit Wagalla Airstrip, but flew right over it. Survivors told the TJRC that they clearly remember a helicopter flying over the airstrip and being threatened by being told the PC was supervising the operations. The order to release the detainees was part of the cover-up that was conjured after the event.
Full of dead bodies
February 14, Valentine’s Day of 1984 is completely absent from the official reports regarding what happened at the Wagalla Massacre. The Etemesi Report says nothing about this date, however survivors say it is the morning when the stampede actually happened.
By this date the Wagalla Airstrip was full of dead bodies. The military and police manning the area were tired and jittery. They were butchering the detainees one after the other. It was no longer an interrogation, it was just a slaughter.
Witnesses recall the crowd surging once at the barbed wire fence, which gave in allowing hundreds to dash for the nearby bushes. The military opened fire and many were shot. In fact people survived because of their determination to escape or die trying, not because they were released from the Wagalla Airstrip. The stampede saved many but caused confusion. It was no longer the clean operation envisaged by the government. A lot of people escaped and were running naked in the bushes near Wagalla. Corralling them was difficult because there were no roads and the forces involved in the security operations were fatigued and demoralized by that time. It was a nightmare of immense proportion. The Wagalla Airstrip that Valentine morning was full of bodies at different stages of decomposition. Some had died moments before, with fresh bullet wounds in their backs, others were injured and screaming for help and weak men were dazed, naked and milling around totally disoriented.
According to the Etemesi Report, Tiema and Wabwire reported that 13 people were shot in the stampede. Furthermore, as arrangements were being made to transport people to their various destinations, 16 more bodies were discovered at the airstrip. The report says that it is “believed that they may have died as a result of dehydration, hunger and excessive exposure to the sun”.
At that point the security team was faced with the question of what to do with the dead bodies and injured persons at the airstrip. The official reports say there were 29 bodies at the airstrip and in their state of panic and confusion the DSC decided to “dispose of the bodies”. The report further states that, “a total of 20 bodies were thrown into the bush near Korodile, 100 miles North West of Wajir town, while the other nine were buried at an area 6 to 10 miles from Wagalla Airstrip on the way to Griftu. This was done by Lieutenant Chungo of the army and police inspector Wachira respectively”.
Bodies disposed of
Survivors remember things very differently. The dead, the injured and the weak survivors were all thrown into the back of army Lories and disposed of in different locations. Some were discarded in the places mentioned in the official report and others were dumped as far as areas in Moyale and Mandera Districts. What they all agree on is that bodies were disposed of as off as 100 miles away from Wagalla Airstrip. The Etemesi Report agrees with the survivors when it states that the “officers were unable to verify what took place at the airstrip and how many people died”.
Official records say that the Wagalla Massacre was a routine military operation gone wrong. The Etemesi Report is specifically focused on this angle. The report says there were no specific instructions given to the subordinate commanders other than to show no mercy to the detainees. It seemed to the committee that compiled the report, that no individual was responsible for any specific action. Accordingly, this was a mob action. The report says that the situation got out of hand and an “unfortunate incident occurred at Wagalla Airstrip”. It further adds that “the system of interrogation used at the airstrip left a lot to be desired and was very unprofessional”.
The most contentious question concerning the Wagalla Massacre is the death toll. Just how many people died in the carnage? The government has been stuck with the figure of 57 for decades but this figure has no basis. No names, or any other details of the deceased were given. The Etemesi Report, which was written under circumstances that guaranteed no independent judgment, arrived at this figure by adding figures from various sources. According to the DSC, 29 people died at Wagalla Airstrip. It was confirmed that 15 bodies were buried at Sister Analena Toneli’s compound. Sister Analena allegedly left 12 bodies in the bush. One person died in the hospital and was buried in the public cemetery. These different numbers were added up to come up with the official death toll. The government’s own report admits that the confusion that reigned makes it impossible to know what happened at Wagalla Airstrip in February 1984.
The writer is the author of “Blood on the Runway: The Wagalla Massacre of 1984”