3 December 2007

Kenya: Beware the Machete, Kenyans, It Commits Murder Most Intimate

Nairobi — A leading supermarket in Kenya has slapped an embargo on large sales of machetes, or pangas as they are popularly known around East Africa.

The panga moratorium follows reports that unusually large numbers were being bought, and there were fears they would be used to hack political rivals to death during elections.

As an East African, the surprising thing about this was that the story did not make newspaper or broadcast headlines until police intercepted a car with government number plates carrying a rich mix of pangas, bows and arrows, and rungus (clubs).

In Rwanda and Uganda, the story would have been bigger and stayed alive for days because, for historical reasons, machetes evoke a particularly frightening spectre of violence.

In January 1986, President Yoweri Museveni's rebels won a five-year guerrilla war. The heartland of his war was Luwero, in the centre of the country. Thousands of people were killed there.

You would walk from bush to bush, from one abandoned building to another, and they would all be full of skeletons. After seeing a couple of hundred skeletons, you become slightly immune to the sight, until you come to skeletons with panga and hoe marks.

Some would still have rusty pangas, sickles and hoes stuck in their skulls or in the collarbone. Those ones, you can never get used to. Each one you chance upon, sends a chill up your spine.

The machete was used to even more deadly effect in Rwanda in 1994, in a genocide in which one million people were killed. I was among a group of journalists who covered the Rwanda Patriotic Army rebels in the early stages of their attack in October 1990, and witnessed their rout by the Kigali government troops.

Within days, a refugee camp had been established inside Uganda some 80 kilometres from the town of Mbarara. One rain-drenched day we went to one of the camps. Most of the camp inmates had deep machete, not bullet wounds. Four years later, I realised that, in the very first week of the conflict, the extremists were already having a practice run with the machetes that they would later use to such horrific effect.

In Rwanda, when you go to the genocide sites, it is the same story - on a larger scale - as Luwero. The skulls with machete cuts arrest you as you survey the carnage.

The machete, though a far less efficient killer than a machinegun, is a more troubling weapon. You can shoot and kill someone from a distance, but if you are wielding a machete, you have to get fairly up close and personal.

In the rebellions in northern Uganda of recent years, stories abounded of fleeing women being shot in the legs, and the men in the back. The women were immobilised, allowing the warriors to rape them at their leisure.

IN RWANDA, THE EXTREMISTS immobilised their victims by cutting their Achilles tendons. Because there were so many people to kill, that allowed the genocidaires to rest and take lunch breaks in between the killings and return to the slaughter when they were re-energised. Again, it also allowed them to rape the women at their leisure.

Instead of shooting their rape victims when they were done, in Rwanda the machete probably required that they look them in the eyes, before slicing their heads.

The machete is a terrifying weapon, and inflicts deeper wounds on societies in conflict, because it makes murder very intimate. One hopes Kenya will be spared that gruesome practical lesson.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group's managing editor for convergence and new products.

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