22 September 2012

Kenya: Mysterious Mass Graves Awaken Fear and Activism

Kenyans were shocked this week to learn that two mass graves were reportedly found in the Tana River District. For months, this region in the country's south-east has been the setting for violent clashes between pastoralists and agriculturalists, which have left over a hundred people dead and thousands displaced. Many feared the death toll would rise after the discovery of the mass graves, but the story took an unexpected twist.

On Thursday, after allegedly finding only one human foot during their search, police called off the exhumation. According to authorities, the bodies from the supposed graves had been removed before police even sealed off the area. This explanation fuelled rumours that the police had in fact fabricated the whole story.

"The Kenyan authorities made up the story of the mass graves to divert the attention from what they are doing here," says Omar Hussein Odha, a member of the Tana Muslim Youth Forum.

According to Odha, himself in the region, police are the main forces that spread death and terror. "You must understand one thing: the Kenyan police are highly corrupt. They are intimidating the people here, hoping that they will not go and vote next year, so that those who have a financial interest in the region, and the ones who bribe the police, will win the elections," Odha told RNW.

A new kind of clash

Clashes between Pokomo farmers and Orma nomadic cattle herders occur often in the Tana River District. The region is very dry and prone to draught. Conflicts are therefore frequently about land and water. However, this year the violence has become political.

"In the new constitution, we are removing governance and also financial resources from the central government to the regions," explains chairman of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission Mzalendo Kibunjia. "In Tana River, of the three communities that are there, there is the question of who will be in charge of the resources. And that is the crux of the matter."

In the dark

Meanwhile, if various social media platforms are any indication, Kenyans feel they have been left in the dark about the existence of mass graves. Some have even started joking about the police's underwhelming findings.

In a satirical summary of the situation, one user wrote on the Facebook wall of the Tana River County group: "...and suddenly the corpses saw our guns pointed at them, they decided to sink even deeper into the ground. However, when we saw the dead sinking deeper into the ground, we shot at them and broke the leg of one of them but the dead managed to escape deeper into the ground with one leg. Here is the leg for Kenyans to see that we did not want to make any mistake. We are making good progress....! Heheheheee."

Another user reflected a prevalent scepticism, writing: "...why didn't they let the media ... go the same day they found the purported graves?"

No security

Human Rights Watch underscores the criticism many have expressed towards authorities. An HRW report on the issue published last week states: "Police are failing to provide adequate security as revenge attacks continue and communities continue to arm themselves."

According to the Tana Muslim Youth Forum, it is the people who need protection against the police. "The GSU [General Service Unite, a paramilitary wing of the Kenyan military and police] is largely made up of Orma and they are the ones targeting the Pokomos. People are urged to go back home. And they want to, but they are afraid because there is no security," Odha explains.

Meanwhile, the violence has worried many Kenyans who are afraid it could spread, notably in the run-up to elections scheduled for March 2013. Kenya's last elections, in December 2007, shook the country to its core. The post-election violence that had swept the nation left 1,500 people died.

Not again

One group taking steps to curb chaos in Kenya is Youth Agenda, a grassroots organization that sets out to civically engage youth. According to programme officer Kevin Osido: "We have asked young people in Tana River to exercise restraint that is going to be able to cool off the violence. Also, we have asked [them] to mobilize their network for peaceful action."

Poverty, tribal inequality and inadequate representation "are all connected", Osido adds. Youth Agenda hopes to correct for these problems by encouraging the younger generation to cooperate with their predecessors.

"It's a Kenyan tradition that as young people we are taught from early years to have respect for our elders. Part of what we need to do is to work together with the elders," says Osido. "The decisions that the elders make should not be seen as a restrain[ing] factor to the development of young people."

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