Victims Testify About Rape, Murder in Kenya’s Post-Independence Concentration Camps

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ISIOLO, KENYA – “Iman Tari,” a voice calls forward. Tari, a stout woman wearing a black burqa and white headscarf, rises from her seat.

A young man in his late 20s stands up beside her and supports her as she walks. Her feet step slowly and steadily across the cement floor to a table laden with microphones and earpieces.

The room falls silent as she sits down, adjusts her seat and puts on the headphones. The crowd waits with bated breath. Tari inches closer to the microphone and begins her testimony to the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, TJRC, established by Parliament in 2008 to investigate the gross human rights violations and other historical injustices committed in Kenya between Dec. 12, 1963, and Feb. 28, 2008.

The TJRC spent 32 days in April and May holding hearings in the Eastern and North Eastern provinces. The hearings aim to offer transitional justice and recommendations on a legal course of action to ensure justice to people like Tari, a survivor of government-created concentration camps in post-independence Kenya.

Tari says she was held in a concentration camp better known as “Manyatta Prison” in Garbatulla, a small town in northern Kenya. The facilities lacked even the most basic amenities.

“There was no water or food,” she says. “We used to smell. Because of the cold, we used to light the pieces of boxes that lay around to keep warm. For toilets, we used to dig a hole in the ground.”

She says women were rounded up and beaten daily, regardless of whether they were pregnant. She says she miscarried at five months.

“At night we would be beaten with the stock of their rifles,” she says. “Our husbands’ hands were tied and wives raped by military personnel.”

Tari is one of 30 individuals and groups who testified at the hearings in Isiolo, a town in Kenya’s Eastern province. Tari’s testimony is a tale common to the people in the room ­– but foreign to many Kenyans living outside of this region.

Secessionist sentiments by Somalis in Kenya’s Eastern and North Eastern provinces at the time of independence in 1963 led to a war between rebels and the government, which created “protected villages” across the region. Victims of these villages, which were essentially concentration camps, recently testified at the TJRC hearings about widespread violence, rape, murder and human rights abuses. Military officials admit the government used the rebels or “Shiftas” as an excuse to persecute Somalis across the region. The TJRC will make recommendations in the fall to the Kenyan government on how to ensure justice is served.

Kenya gained its independence in 1963, but not everyone wanted to be a part of the new nation. Somalis living in the country’s north and northeast wanted to join Somalia, leading to the Shifta War, which lasted from 1963 to 1967. The government declared a state of emergency, which lasted close to three decades.

Regional Struggle Dates Back to Colonial Times

Adam Hussein Adam of the Center for Minority Rights Development, a nongovernmental organization, says the word “Shifta” comes from the language of the Oromo people, a tribe in northern Kenya.

“The word Shifta is an Oromo word meaning ‘bandits,’” Adam says. “It was first used by Kenya’s first president, the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. He called Kenya Somalis ‘Shiftas,’ primarily those who were in favor of secession.”

Hassan Huka, a correspondent for the Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper, and a historian of the area, says there were two political parties at the time. The Northern Province People Progressive Party, NPPPP, was supported by the districts of Isiolo, Garissa, Wajir and Mandera. The Northern People’s Union Association, NPUA, was supported by the districts of Marsabit and Moyale.

“The latter wanted to join Kenya,” he says. “The former wanted to secede to Somalia.”

There was a referendum held in 1962 in the seven districts of northern Kenya, which were then called the Northern Frontier District, NFD, according to a 2008 report by the Refugee Review Tribunal, RRT, an Australian statutory body.

“The colonial government did this to seek the opinion of the people in that region,” Huka says. “This happened in preparation for independence.”

There were 136 oral and 160 written submissions, which revealed an overwhelming support for secession, according to the RRT report. But Huka says the colonial government ignored the referendum outcome.

“And instead [it] created a seventh province of Kenya,” Huka says. “They said, ‘No.’ Actually they went ahead and said that North Eastern will become the seventh province instead of a republic or a breakaway region.”

The North Eastern province borders Somalia to the northeast and Ethiopia to the north. It is predominantly home to Kenyan Cushitic groups, most of whom are Somali.

The NPPPP political party representing the people of this region felt betrayed by the colonial government, according to the RRT report. They boycotted the 1963 elections and began to rebel, which led to what came to be called the Shifta War.

“The Shiftas [were] the military wing and was referred to as the Northern Frontier District Liberation Army, NFDLA,” says a former senior superintendent in the national military during the Shifta War, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal. “They used sophisticated weapons – old Italian and British arms, including rifles, brens [light machine guns], bazookas and grenade launchers. They were organized in battalions of 1,000 and were deployed to the NFD in bands of between 25 to 30.”

But Huka says that the government was itching to go to war and used the so-called Shiftas as an excuse. He says the Shifta War was ignited by an attack on a Kenyan military convoy by armed men, considered Shiftas, between the towns of Garissa and Garbatulla.

“The government got an excuse,” he says. “Kenyatta got an excuse to hammer people. People were put in concentration camps. And anyone outside the camps was considered an enemy.”

Huka says there were four concentration centers.

“These centers were based in Merti, Garbatulla, Isiolo and Modogashe,” he says. “And each center had several camps.”

Joseph Onyango, district commissioner of Garbatulla, says the government restricted everyone’s movement.

“There was a five-kilometer radius limit of movement in community reserves,” he says. “Anyone caught outside that radius was considered a Shifta. Three-quarters of livestock owned in the region was lost.”

Emotional Testimony Reveals Widespread Human Rights Abuses

Last month, more than 30 people testified at the TJRC hearings in Isiolo to convey their experiences living in the concentration camps. Tecla Namachanja Wanjala, TJRC’s acting chairwoman, says the camps were like “hell on earth.”

Like Tari, Fatuma Ibrahim, a mother of nine, also testified during the TJRC hearing in Isiolo. She says she was in a concentration camp called Kambi ya Juu.

“Women were raped,” she says, her bright eyes opening wide to emphasize the weight of the atrocities. “Women had their privates cut with broken bottles.”

Ibrahim says she was part of a group of people who were whisked away from their homes and jailed without trial. After being jailed for three months, she says she shocked the armed forces personnel when she pleaded not to be released and sent to a concentration camp.

“I begged to stay in jail because at least in jail they offered us food,” she says. “There was nothing in the camps.”

Ibrahim says she is relieved to be able to finally share her story during the hearings. But other victims say they still feel burdened by their loss.

Maleto Adan, 69, breaks down as he speaks about life in one of the concentration camps in Garbatulla in 1965.

“Soldiers raped our women,” he says. “More than 100 people were put in army trucks and were taken to Ntaiboto. Skeletons of the dead were taken to the headquarters in Isiolo as evidence of death.”

Crying uncontrollably, Adan can barely speak. He says he lost his family in the camp.

As Adan speaks, he points to the ground that he stands on. He says that it was a mass grave where hundreds of people who died in the concentration camp were buried. The site, composed of rocks and sand, has no demarcations or tombstones. He says graves have been dug up and reused for burial at the cemetery, which is still used today.

Adan composes himself briefly then chokes up again.

“Camels that couldn’t move were shot and died,” he says. “The Shifta are sponsored by the government. They [the government] did this!”

TJRC trauma counselors quickly whisk him away and console him.

Khadija Ahmed Osman, 80, is frail and bedridden. Her niece assists her out of her bed to tell her story. She slowly sits up and plunks her feet on the ground.

“They beat us,” she says in pain. “The government beat us. They beat us and called us Shifta. They entered our home, beat us with the stocks of their rifles, and dragged us out of our home [and] stomped on us.”

Osman says she lost her son while attempting to escape from the camp. She says her child fell, and the soldiers trampled him. Then she starts to cry.

Wanjala says this persecution continued unabated because of the Indemnity Act, legislation that accorded government officials immunity from prosecution. She says this led to widespread tension, extrajudicial killings, maiming, rape, plunder of livestock, detention – and the post-independence concentration camps.

“People violated people’s rights,” Wanjala says. “Most of the injustices that were meted against the people of Upper and North Eastern [Kenya] during the Shifta War was done by the military, by the local administration and the police force. The Indemnity Act makes it impossible for those people to be prosecuted or to be brought before the law, hence denying the people of North Eastern [province] the justice they deserve.”

Commission Prepares Recommendations for Justice

The former senior superintendent in the Kenyan army explains the army’s mode of operation during the Shifta War.

“Yes, I was among the other many military officers deployed to mop up the Shiftas, whom in essence were actually laying ambush in several police posts,” he says. “As military officer[s], we operate on orders or directives from our seniors. We are not at any time obliged to question their decision.”

But he says he eventually realized that the government was using the Shiftas as an excuse to persecute the entire region of Somalis.

“Through the operation I realized that the state’s initiative to contain the Shifta War was not only directed to the secessionist fighter [Shiftas], but also at the Somali community who weren’t Shiftas more broadly,” he says. “Forced vigil, restriction of movement and livestock confiscation criminalized a whole community, and Shifta was the justification.”

Wanjala says she is optimistic about the reconciliation process, which she says has been successful so far. She says she believes that justice will prevail for the victims.

“Their stories have to be heard,” she says. “What we have done to each other has to be exposed. The current generation has suffered. The coming generation does not have to suffer. Things need to be corrected if reconciliation and healing has to take place.”

The TJRC’s mandate requires it to provide recommendations for the implementation strategy. It will present the final report to President Mwai Kibaki in November 2011, when its mandate lapses.

“The summary of the findings and recommendations need to [be] published in three national newspapers,” Wanjala says. “According to the act, all the implementations have to be [adopted].”

As testimony continues, Ibrahim sings a song in her native language that she and other women used to sing in captivity at the camps.

“This camel is tired,” she sings. “The camel’s body is worn and bruised. And there is someone sitting top of it, wearing it down. Why doesn’t he just kill it?”

The song is an analogy for their plight in the concentration camps, she says.

‘“All we want is justice,” Ibrahim says. “And proof that the government actually cares for our rights.”