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A fragile peace in the desert

Ethnic clashes, blamed on competition for increasingly scarce water and grazing, are sweeping northern Kenya, as drought and famine intensify in the neglected region.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 100 people have been killed in renewed violence perpetrated under the cover of long-simmering ethnic animosities, and fueled by the myriad conflicts which surround northern Kenya.

The Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, militias in southern Sudan, Oromo Liberation Front guerillas in southern Ethiopia and Somali warlords who consider East Africa’s deserts their personal fiefdoms, provide a constant supply of weapons to feuding tribes.

The British charity, Oxfam, says northern Kenya is ”awash” with weapons. In Mandera district, which borders Somalia, the Garre and Murule clans are fighting, and in the most recent flare-up, 23 Garre villagers — mostly women and children — were massacred in a hail of AK-47 gunfire as they slept in their huts.

Similar clashes between different ethnic groups are claiming scores of lives in the Marsabit and Turkana regions of Kenya.

Non-governmental and aid organisations say thousands of nomads, with an estimated 250 000 cattle and tens of thousands of sheep, goats and camels, have this year undertaken one of the largest migrations in recent times in East Africa, to escape violence, thirst and hunger in northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and Somalia.

Isiolo District, on the edge of the vast Kaisut Desert in Kenya, is their destination, where nomads from the Borana, Somali, Turkana, Samburu and Meru ethnic groups share limited grazing and water.

They have divergent cultures but are united in faith, the overwhelming majority being Muslims.

”To all these people, their animals are their greatest — and only — wealth. So when they see their beloved beasts start to die, that is when the violence starts; they are willing to die — and to kill — to protect their valuables,” said Wario Dabaso, a member of Isiolo’s Peace and Reconciliation Committee, which tries to maintain harmony between the assorted refugees.

”I have come here because at my home in Mandera, the wells are dry. Even our camels are dying and the people are fighting,” said Abdiker Mohammed, a Somali nomad, in the midst of a dusty livestock market buzzing with flies at Mashobora, near Isiolo.

According to Mohammed, the 550km journey from Mandera to Isiolo — in temperatures that frequently topped 45ºC — took him and his animals more than two months to complete. Along the way, he met struggling nomads from other ethnic groups.

”We all worked together to dig boreholes in the desert: Somali, Samburu, Borana; together. It was my first time to work in such a way, with people who could not speak my language. We were forced to cooperate, so that we could survive. But still, many of our animals died,” Mohammed muttered ruefully.

Nearby, an elderly Borana herdsman inspected a herd of white, short-horn cattle. Abdul Ghafur told how he had traveled across the Dida Galgalu Desert, a barren moonscape of black volcanic rocks and colossal craters rising up from red sands.

”I left my village three months ago. It is in the Mega (Escarpment) in southern Ethiopia. There was no water, and it was hot as the sun itself. The dangers are many in that desert, but I just prayed to Waa (God) to keep me safe.

”In southern Ethiopia, there are no markets. And people are very poor; they cannot buy cattle. Also, the government soldiers, they are always making trouble with us. Whenever they want meat, they just shoot our cattle,” Ghafur said.

Although they are attacking one another in other parts of Kenya, the various ethnic groups settled in Isiolo are living in relative harmony.

”No one is fighting because we all just want to sell animals. And you cannot make money when people are fighting.

”So, here, there is good-natured arguing and bargaining, and small fights about who has the best animals. But there are no big fights like with guns and knives,” Abdi Halake, a broker at the animal market, asserted.

Saafo Roba, the coordinator of the Waso Trust, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Isiolo that promotes indigenous people’s land rights, believes most ethnic clashes in northern Kenya are ”politically instigated and we used to have the same problems here, but now the people are refusing to be abused by the politicians,” he said.

”The people have long memories and they are still bitter about how the politicians mobilised the different clans here to kill one another (in 2000 and 2002). What would happen is a politician would provide certain groups with grazing and water as a reward for attacking his rivals. And the new people arriving here tell me this is the same as what is happening elsewhere now,” he explained

But Roba described as ”very worrying” instances of communities in Isiolo attacking one another’s villages to steal cattle.

Dabaso said ”culture and prestige” were the motives behind the cattle raids.

”Some (of the ethnic groups) consider it essential for their young men to participate in such events to prove their manhood.

”In some of these raids, people are killed because now the young men have guns. Before, they fought hand to hand, or with knives and spears, and there were only a few deaths. But now, many die. You can imagine the damage a rapid-fire automatic rifle does, as opposed to a single thrust of a spear,” Dabaso explained.

He feared that the ”fragile” peace in Isiolo at the moment could end in a sudden outbreak of violence, if agreements about rights to diminishing resources were not maintained.

”We have people here arriving all the time, in their hundreds, and they start competing with people who have been here for a long time for very little water and grazing. So, you can see how easily blood can flow,” said Dabaso. ”We have our hands full here trying to keep the peace between the different tribes, especially now that some boreholes are drying up. I would say the water is boiling at the moment, but not yet boiling over.”

But, as a dry wind blew across the livestock market, Halake professed that peace would prevail in Isiolo. He reasoned that the various ethnic groups gathered here could no longer afford to ”entertain themselves” with ethnic rivalries, which he branded ”things that belong to the past”.

”Yes, we are all very different people here, and we have been fighting for many years now. Some groups do not like other groups, and still others, hate others,” he admitted. ”But I think if we all want to survive, we will have to join together. That is the only way left for us. Otherwise, we will all be destroyed.” — IPS

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Darren Taylor
Darren Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He is a regular contributor to several African and international news organisations.

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