The trouble really flared up in Mount Elgon in August 2006, with the establishment of the Saboat Land Defence Force, or SLDF – an armed militia. The SLDF started out by asking for a “fair” allocation of land, claiming that the previous land allocation scheme by the government was corrupt and excluded them from some of the mountain’s more fertile land.
I’ve been working with Médecins Sans Frontières out there for the past nine months and have seen the SLDF turning their violence on the people. It started with this dispute, but soon civilians were caught between the SLDF and the violent response of the police, and later the Kenyan military.
Those who could fled. They got out of there that August. Others tried to move away from where the violence was happening, but were again targeted when they arrived somewhere else. Some moved up the mountain – as high as 3,000 metres. It’s cold and wet up there, not like the Kenya of safaris and beaches. At that height nothing really grows and food is hard to come by.
I was working with MSF to provide healthcare for the people up the mountain and the ones who fled on the lower slopes; we took mobile clinics and staff from the Kenyan Ministry of Health to them up the mountain. It was a struggle on the terrible paths – steep and muddy.
Once we were there, I’d say a third of our consultations were to do with colds and respiratory tract infections, which gave us an indication of the poor conditions the people were living in. We were also dealing with diarrhoea and skin diseases, really just trying to handle their primary healthcare needs. But as the violence increased we started dealing with what, in our jargon, we call “intentional physical trauma”. These are gunshot wounds, machete wounds and the injuries sustained from being beaten.
The militia were coming to them at night and demanding food, money, and sometimes even their sons. If the villagers didn’t comply their houses would be burned, their food stores destroyed and livestock stolen. The militia would not let them continue to work on the fields so their crops were left to rot.
During the day any village that was known to have been attacked would receive a visit from the police. (Initially it was the administration police, but when it became clear that they couldn’t cope a specialist, heavily armed unit was brought in, one widely feared in Kenya, called the GSU.) The villagers said that the police accused them of supporting the SLDF and supplying them with food. They said that they had been beaten by the police. Day in, day out, these people were living in fear of random attack by the militia and punishment by the very authorities employed to protect them.
This culminated with the arrival of the Kenyan military. There was enormous army operation to get rid of the SLDF, and while it was happening our medical teams were blocked from the region, despite having worked on the mountain for almost a year. We had to hang around outside the area of operation, waiting for the Ministry of Health and Kenyan Red Cross to bring people out to us. We would try to stabilise the wounded and refer them to hospitals outside the district.
I saw people who had been attacked by the SLDF – they had been hacked at with machetes, and many had their limbs, ears and lips cut off. Others had been beaten by police, with lacerations on the backs of their legs and buttocks. From the start of the military operations in the area, I saw cases of intentional physical trauma shoot up from 20 a month to 240.
In a certain area near the Uganda border, the military arrested every male from the age of 15 to 80 – every single one of them. They were put into camps where they were systematically “screened”, which is a euphemism for interrogation and torture.
We were not allowed in the screening camps, but we were able to find the men once they had been released. Most had been beaten, some had gunshot wounds, broken limbs and evidence of sexual torture. They told us their genitals had been beaten with metal bars, and some had been tied by their testicles and dragged around on the end of a rope.
Many of the men came to our counselling groups, worried they were now impotent or infertile. There are groups for women too, where women can talk about the abuses they suffered and express their fears for the future of their society. Mothers are worried about what their children have seen, and what is going to become of the young men who have been going round committing these atrocities.
The medical needs of the population are ongoing. The Kenyan government says that the situation in Mount Elgon is getting better and people should not be afraid to move back. But everyone is still scared; they have seen waves of violence come and go, and know that stability can be an illusion. Besides, they have nothing left any more and they would be coming back to nothing.
What they really need is shelter. They need the hammers, nails and plastic sheeting to build a roof over their heads; they need water containers, cooking pots and farming implements.
The rains were delayed this year and a lot of them have missed the opportunity to get their seeds into the ground. This means next year’s harvest is not guaranteed, which could cause further tensions among the communities.
The people of Mount Elgon are strong and resourceful – they don’t want to live in a refugee camp. Wherever they go they try to make it work, to make something happen for them, but after two years of enduring this violence and fear they really are stretched to the limit. We at MSF can provide medical aid, but we cannot meet all their other needs, like their need for shelter, schooling for their kids, tools to farm their land. That is why I am speaking out today and calling for other agencies and organisations to come and provide assitance.
• Simon Burroughs was speaking to Anna Bruce-Lockhart.