15 November 2012

Kenya: Fear Rules in Suguta, the Valley of Death

Locals call it the valley of death. And true to its name, many have lost their lives here. At Suguta Valley, a chopper carrying former provincial commissioner Ishmael Chelang'a was brought down in 1996, a police commander was killed and hundreds of police officers and locals have lost their lives.

For those who have been to the valley, it is a dreaded place; you do not want to venture into the treacherous terrain. Treacherous because it appears calm and quiet but in it death lurks.

The valley is a vast segment of the Great Rift Valley set between Lake Baringo to the south and Lake Turkana to the north. Towards the north end, bordering Turkana, the valley floor is only a few hundred metres above sea level, making it one of the lowest parts of the Rift Valley.

The weather in Suguta is extremely harsh - very hot during the day and very cold nights. The Suguta Valley is one of the hottest parts of Kenya with deserts, volcanic cones, salt lakes and uneven lava fields.

There is little oxygen and visitors to the terrain gasp for breath. From the top of the adjacent Mt Nyiru Forest to the bottom of the Suguta, the land drops over 2,500m.

It is a corridor used by cattle rustlers to drive livestock towards Turkana South and also South Horr in Marsabit County. The raiders take advantage of the rugged mountain to elude police officers. Within hours after the raid, the bandits crisscross the area never to be seen again and when pursued, they hide in the forest.

In the latest incident where at least 40 police officers were massacred before dawn on Saturday, a police officer who asked not to be named blames their commanders for "misleading them".

At first, they were told that the raiders were about 45 only but they were more than 100 and well armed. Cattle rustlers acquire sophisticated weapons to carry the raids.

They have been doing so since the early 1970s from the neighbouring countries of Somali, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan. During mop-ups of illegal guns and ammunition, they give out the ones that can no longer be serviced and hide the best.

The officer said after driving for about 30km from Baragoi, they parked their lorries and were ordered to walk. This is after they were informed by Kenya Police Reservists - who acted as guides - that the manyattas where the raiders were hiding were not far. Among the pastoralists, "just here" could turn out to be many kilometres.

The plan was to attack the manyattas at the wee hours of the morning. So after parking their lorries at about 6am, they started walking towards the manyattas.

But it turned out that the walk was about three hours long of climbing up and down the hills. According to the officer, the raiders were aware that the security personnel were pursuing them.

They even mounted sentries on top of the hills to monitor as they advance. "And when we approached their hideouts, they formed a semi-circle on the mountain," he recalls.

He says the officers literally walked into the ambush as bullets were sprayed from left, right and front. The first platoon - of about 36 police officers - could not contain the fire and attempted to retreat but it was too late.

The officer describes the operation as the worst ever. They were ordered not to carry their mobile phones yet they did not have communication gadgets.

He says their planning was poor because they did not approach the bandits with caution. "We were made to believe that it would be an easy job. Just pursuing a few raiders and returning the stolen cattle," he said.

Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere confirmed that the bandits were aware of the police advance and ambushed them. And police spokesman Eric Kiraithe admitted that the police were "tactically disadvantaged" and the situation was "aggravated by lack of equipment".

He wondered why the officers carried the operation without bullet-proof jackets and armoured vehicles. Former Rift Valley provincial commissioner Hassan Noor once said that the valley gives the security personnel a headache. He suggested the building of roads to open up the area and help the police in pursuing the raiders.

In the recent past, cattle rustling has become more sophisticated and bloody as raiders acquire refined and modern equipment. New entrants also join the age-old tradition with billions raked as the activity ceases being a cultural practice to a commercial venture.

For ages, pastoralist communities, including the Marakwet, Pokot, Samburu, Borana, and Turkana have been locked in a never-ending war involving cattle rustling and intra-community warfare.

The raids have left many villages destroyed and hundreds of families hopeless and displaced. Efforts to tame the practice have yielded little as the cycle of raids and counter-raids is kept going.

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