The base of the conflict is survival - expressed in competition for scarce resources: pasture, water and fish.
Just over two months ago, Fr Steven Ochieng visited England to speak about his parish in Todonyang, northwestern Kenya, which is twinned with Holy Apostles, Pimlico, central London. This week he sent a letter describing an outbreak of inter-tribal violence there, which has left more than 31 people dead and displaced many hundreds.
Fr Steven writes: We were in the process of preparing an Easter letter of Good News on how the peace in our area had improved, when news came that an incident had just occurred; an incident that shattered the dreams of many and pushed the whole situation here at Todonyang to the edge of the precipice.
After months of peace and prosperity, despite being in the midst of the ongoing drought and famine, Todonyang area in the northwestern Kenya, has been blessed with an abundant fish catch and sorghum harvest from the delta. The two warring communities had become friends overnight through the peace initiatives that we had started last year. The drought and famine in the area had lead the two communities to look at their shared problems and see the advantage of living and trading together. Our continuous efforts, arranging meetings were easing the relationship between the two sides and the future looked all so promising. We had just finished a four-day symposium in Todonyang that was attended by a cross section of elders, women and youth from both communities. Promises were made and we were certain that we would not return to the “dark ages” of senseless killings!
It was on the second day of May 2011, while business was going on as usual, that two Dassanech gunmen lay in wait at the patch of overgrown reeds by the lake where both the Turkana and Dassanech were recently fishing side by side. There the gunmen shot at Robert Petabong and Julius Loudi. While Robert was killed, Julius Loudi was lucky to survive the attack, albeit with serious gunshot wounds and loss of blood. The two were the elders of the community and Robert was also the chairman of our church committee!
Confusion ensued and the now enraged Turkana villagers returned to the Todonyang Church Compound where they have been living as displaced people for the last two years, and revenged the killing of their kinsman by killing four Dassanech in cold blood. Other Dassanech were rescued while two ran back to their villages at the Kenya Ethiopian border. This would prove to be a tragic mistake!
We were very worried and wanted to save the situation from more casualties. We knew that there were many Turkanas in the Dassanech villages as they had gone to buy sorghum and other goods. We knew that if news reached the Dassanech villages, all hell would break loose. More than 100 Turkanas were in those villages!
As we neared the first Dassanech village, our worst fears were confirmed! News had reached the village of Sies before us and we were in shock to see the aftermath of one of the cruellest atrocities we have ever witnessed in the area; 23 bodies of women, children and men sprawled all over the plains only one kilometre from the Kenya Police Post! One of the victims was only a few months old! This was a massacre. Only one lady, Hellen Ngapoe, survived, with serious gun wounds and after pretending to be dead for hours under the scorching sun! One other Turkana was given safety in a hut of his Dassanech friends as the slaughter was taking place.
The youth who took part in the killings still had their guns warm in their hands as we approached the village to find out what had taken place and to see if any Turkana was alive. Assisted by Fr Albert Salvans and Fr Joseph Ekalimon, we mobilised forces and went around other villages of Toltale, Gabite, Koro and rounded up 45 Turkanas that were given safety in these villages by the local elders, bringing them back to Todonyang Mission. In the village of Toltale, the elders had prevented the youth from attacking these innocent people and saved the lives of many!
In total, 31 people lost their lives senselessly that day: 26 Turkanas and five Dassanach, while more than 34 people are reported missing! In the following days we collected the bodies and what remained of them and buried them near the mission. Todonyang has since been on the news, as the Kenya government promises to beef up security – which has not been forthcoming.
We were forced to evacuate the entire village of about 1,200 people from Todonyang to Lowarengak, about 24 kilometres to the south. All the economic activities in the area have been suspended! Most of the villagers were fishermen and were netting about one tonne of fish per day!
The mission however continues to operate, since, for the past six years, we are the only ones who are in a position to mediate between the two communities. Nevertheless we have had to reduce some activities, awaiting the government response.
The base of the conflict is survival - expressed in competition for scarce resources: pasture, water and fish. When the dry season comes, most of the Turkana in the area have to get close to the Omo River Delta, increasing competition for resources. Insecurity now prevents people from carrying out other activities, such as herding, fishing, trading, learning etc. It also hinders investment and any kind of development, stealing people’s future as they end up trapped in a spiral of marginalization and violence from where they do not seem to find the way out.
We are glad though that the Prime Minister and four other government ministers, and some security officials have visited the area and taken a keen interest to address the situation. They said more security personnel would be deployed. Only when that happens will we be able to encourage the people to return to their business. In two years now, more than 100 people have died just in and around Todonyang.
Please continue with your prayers and support and we hope that we shall see a glimmer of light at the end of this dark tunnel. And that the resurrected Christ will give us real peace!
Fr Steven Ochieng
If you would like more information, or to support the work of the St Paul’s Missionary Community in Kenya, see: http://www.newways.org.uk