When the Police are the Perpetrators

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"I heard bullets, so I rushed out of my house,” said the woman, cradling her bandaged arm. “I was only about five meters outside when a bullet hit me in the arm, just below the elbow. My children were screaming. I saw the police kicking and beating them. Everyone was running and crying.”

The woman speaking was sitting in a circle of women in the Samburu village of Loruko, in northern Kenya. Together they were recounting the day last November when hundreds of Kenyan police attacked their settlement.

The attack came at dawn, as police surrounded the village and began firing into it.  Families were startled awake that morning by the hiss and zing of bullets and the cries of their neighbors as they realized they were under assault. Emerging from the darkness of the low mud huts called bomas, they saw children, women, and men running and crying as uniformed police beat them with heavy sticks and rifle butts. Lopeyok Lenkupai picked up his two babies and started running toward the edge of the village, but police bullets hit him in the hip and the chest, and he fell to the ground.

As police ground troops swarmed through the village flushing everyone from their homes, a police helicopter swooped down and circled the village to keep the people from escaping. “The police herded us like cows outside the village to an open field,” an elder recounted. “There were hundreds of us there. They told us to lie down, and then they stepped on us with their heavy boots, they kicked us and caned us. They beat the children and the ladies who were pregnant, the elders, everyone. They beat us all.” In the vacated village, police ransacked and looted the bomas. They emptied gourds of milk and dashed people’s precious stores of maize flour and rice to the ground. They broke into metal boxes where families store their valuables and took cell phones, ID cards, school supplies, watches, beads, and a total of $14,000 in cash from 110 homes.

As the battered and terrified people found their ways back into the village, a cry arose from one of the bomas, where children were seen stepping out into the sunlight, covered with blood. “You have killed my mother!” a small boy shouted at a policeman, who then peered into the dark boma. The policeman came out, blew his whistle, and all the troops retreated. When villagers went inside, they found a woman dead, her head nearly blasted away, and her infant at her breast. Her name was Ndanait Lemantile; she had five children.

A neighbor woman later recalled, “Our sister who was killed, she was nursing her baby when she died. We women cannot leave our children behind. The old men ran away, but we women, we lay down over our children to protect them. We were just waiting for death. This is the pain that women feel when we see our children beaten, when we hear them cry. We are afraid that the police will come again. We have heard that they raped women in other villages. We can’t sleep because of what we saw. Our children cry in the night.”

The surprise police attack on the Samburu community of Loruko was just one of a series that took place between February 2009 and January 2010. During this one-year period, at least 10 Samburu villages in East Samburu and Isiolo districts suffered police assaults. In every attack, police brutally beat women, children, men, and elders, stole or destroyed their belongings, and terrorized the entire community. In some villages, police committed murder, rape, and arson. In the first coordinated attack on three villages in February 2009, the police confiscated all the people’s cattle, over 4,000 head, belonging to 86 families. The loss of their cattle left these Samburu families utterly impoverished and dangerously vulnerable to famine at a time of severe drought.

Starting in late February of 2009, Cultural Survival began receiving disturbing reports of these violent attacks on Indigenous Samburu communities, including accounts of death, injury, disability, rape, displacement, terror, impoverishment, hunger, disease, and malnutrition. In November, we submitted a report to the United Nations, and in January 2010, human rights expert Chris Allan and I, as Cultural Survival’s Global Response program director, spent two weeks in Kenya conducting our own investigation. We recorded testimony from Samburu survivors and witnesses in five villages attacked by the police, and we interviewed respected leaders of local and national NGOs, clergy, health workers, human rights representatives, and elected and appointed regional officials. We consolidated our findings in a report that we submitted to the Kenyan government, the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and human rights organizations. (You can view the report on Cultural Survival’s website:  www.cs.org/samburureport.)

When we arrived in Kenya, the devastating drought of the previous year had just ended, and the rains had greened the acacia trees and grasses. The forested slopes of the Samburus’ sacred mountains rose from the vast plains, dotted here and there with the lone acacia trees that are emblematic of East Africa. We bounced along the deeply rutted dirt roads in our Land Cruiser, passing oblivious giraffes and elephants, and even a cheetah who sat motionless in the bright sun. As we neared a village, we would begin to see a few low bomas among the acacias and then the thorn-bush circular boundaries of the compounds called manyattas. As we stepped out of the vehicle, people began walking toward us from all directions, unhurried.

“Supa, supa,” they said as they softly shook our hands in welcome, smiling and intoning deep “hmmmm”s as we responded, “Supa, supa.” Everyone came, taking our hands one by one in greeting.  As our local guides and interpreters explained the purpose of our visit, people nodded, “Eeh, eeh,” and led us toward a shady spot where we could sit. The male elders brought their own tiny, three-legged stools and offered the same stools for us to sit on; the women and children settled into a circle around us, their colored skirts and red-beaded necklaces contrasting brightly with the dirt and ubiquitous dry cow dung. And then they began to tell us what happened.

Like the other pastoralist tribes in northern Kenya—the Turkana, Pokot, Borana, Rendille, Meru, and Somalis—the Samburu depend on their cattle for their survival and for their pride, status, identity, and happiness. For centuries, they have guided their herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels across the vast plains of northern Kenya in search of water and pasture. During droughts, they may lose half or all their animals, and their own populations rise and fall with the size and health of their herds. They know each animal by sight and by name and sing songs about them and to them. Cows’ milk and blood are the Samburus’ main source of nourishment and the centerpiece of every ceremony and celebration. In Lerata, I watched an elderly Samburu woman lovingly stroke and cuddle a calf for hours as we sat in the shade of an acacia tree hearing testimonies about the terrifying police attacks on her village.

The Samburu people’s daily life revolves around the needs of their cattle for pasture, water, and milking. The women milk the cows and other livestock in the morning, and boys and young men (morans) are charged with finding them pasture and water, protecting them, and bringing them home at night to the safety of thorn-bush corrals. The morans form a close-knit age set, learn critical survival skills together, and protect their communities’ precious livestock while living on their own, apart from the manyattas. To protect the cattle, they face down lions and fight off raiding morans from neighboring rival tribes. Through the centuries, the Samburu and their pastoralist neighbors have occasionally raided each other’s cattle to replenish their stocks after droughts and to exert dominance over prized water sources and territory. Cattle raiding has been an unofficially sanctioned tradition among the morans as a way of proving manhood and gaining status.
But in the months leading up to the February 2009 police attacks on Lerata, Laresoro, and Naishamunye, cattle raiding among the Samburu and their rival tribes had intensified in both frequency and violence, mainly due to the increasing availability of guns in the region. Raiders carrying guns are much more likely to kill and injure tribal rivals, causing terrible grief and resentment and provoking acts of revenge. In early 2009, the communities and politicians were calling on the police to capture the cattle thieves and restore law and order. And that was the stated reason for the first police attacks. In February 2009, police assaulted the communities of Lerata, Laresoro, and Naishamunye ostensibly to recover cattle that the Samburu had allegedly stolen from rival tribes over the previous years. But the police confiscated the communities’ entire herd, more than 4,000 head of cattle, leaving the people without income or food during a severe drought. They then redistributed the animals among the Samburus’ rival tribes, without even bothering to trace or record their ownership.

A Samburu elder, who was a retired senior sergeant in the Kenyan army, tried unsuccessfully to retrieve his confiscated cattle. He told us, “I have never stolen any cattle. I retired from the army and have always been a 100-percent government person. I bought my cattle with my pension when I retired. The police took all 170 of my cattle. After 32 years of government service I feel bitter.”  Three Samburu morans were shot and killed by police when they refused to abandon their confiscated cows.

Member of Parliament Raphael Letimalo, who represents Samburu East district, vigorously protested the police action, and he is still demanding compensation, but his pleas have been ignored. “Kenya is turning into a police state,” he lamented. “The police didn’t come here to look for stolen cattle. They came to take away all the cattle, like a punishment. The police are criminalizing entire Samburu communities and punishing all the people. Of course the people feel bitterness, and they will keep feeling this bitterness until the cattle are returned.”  Even the tribes that benefited from the redistribution of the confiscated cattle protested the police action for being punitive against the Samburu and provocative. For example, the Meru community of Isiolo strongly condemned “the excessive use of force on unarmed Samburu pastoralists” and stated that the police actions created “hatred and suspicion among the pastoralist neighbors.” They urged the provincial administration and political leaders to “dissolve the tension that has been created by the ongoing [police] exercise.”

The Kenyan government has much to be concerned about in this vast, scarcely populated, largely undeveloped northern region. Its neighbors—Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda—are plagued with civil wars and unrest that can easily spill across unprotected borders. Small-arms traders bring guns across those borders into Kenya, increasing the deadliness of conflicts of all kinds. Bandits make roads so unsafe that last year a Catholic bishop threatened to pull all the church’s teachers, health workers, aid workers, and mission staff out of the region unless better security could be provided. Terrorists have already made devastating strikes in Nairobi and Mombasa, and the vulnerable northern and eastern borders offer them the easiest illegal entrance to Kenya.

The Kenyan government is eager to impose law and order in the north to make way for development and modernization in the region. Long neglected and deprived of government services, including roads, schools, and medical facilities, the northern region is now targeted for fast-track development. Government planners envision Isiolo as Kenya’s next wildlife tourism hub, with luxury hotels and a network of roads into the surrounding game reserves, national parks, and wildlife conservancies. The photogenic Samburu are sure to adorn the new tourist brochures and websites, but will increased tourism and development help or hinder the survival of their culture and pastoralist economy? 

 “The government has never helped us pastoralists the way they help the agriculturalists with subsidies, technology, and transportation for their crops,” said Raphael Letimalo, the member of Parliament who represents Samburu East district. “The Samburu are the people who have done the most to protect the wild animals here,” he continued. “We don’t kill animals for food, and we protect the elephants from the ivory poachers. We should receive the benefit from tourism.”
Letimalo and his constituents worry that instead of bringing the needed schools, clinics, and veterinary services to the north, development will benefit others and further encroach upon the pasture lands for their livestock. Chinese oil companies are already exploring near Isiolo. These pressures, along with gloomy forecasts of more frequent and severe drought as a consequence of climate change, are stressing the pastoralist tribes and intensifying their competition for scarce water and pasture.

To make matters worse, some politicians in the region have fanned the flames of intertribal conflict and are widely perceived as manipulating or even instigating the conflicts for their political advantage. Chief among them is Mohamed Kuti, member of Parliament for Isiolo District, who last year used his political influence to put 300 government-issued guns into the hands of his Somali and Borana constituents, knowing that they would be used against the Samburu. Notably, Somalis and Boranas generally vote for Kuti’s Party of National Unity, whereas the Samburu generally support opposition candidates in the Orange Democratic Movement. Political manipulation of intertribal conflict was at the root of the nationwide violence that broke out after Kenya’s fraudulent 2007 presidential election, and many Kenyans fear that the 2012 elections will generate even worse violence unless the government takes steps toward political and police reform.

Everyone, government officials and pastoralist tribes alike, agree that the proliferation of firearms in northern Kenya is exacerbating all the other problems and that universal disarmament is necessary. Last November, President Kibaki announced a disarmament operation in the north, but the government missed a great opportunity to unite the different tribal communities through an impartial and collaborative disarmament process. Instead, Kibaki sent thousands of police troops specifically into the Samburu East district, where the majority of Samburu live, and authorized them to forcibly recover any firearms that were not voluntarily turned in before December 24. Samburu elders made lists of guns held in their villages and called the authorities in to receive them. Still, fear gripped the villages, and hundreds of women fled with their children in anticipation of the December 24 crackdown. Fortunately, Raphael Letimalo and the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights persuaded the government to postpone the deadline, first to January 20, 2010, and then to February 20. But the police didn’t seem to get the message. During the amnesty period, on January 10, they attacked the village of Lerata, and on January 12 they assaulted Kiltamany. In these attacks, eight Samburu women were raped in their homes, five morans were beaten unconscious, and two homes were set on fire. In Kiltamany alone, police robbed 46 homes and stole $550 in cash from a women’s self-help group that had received the money as a loan from an international organization.

The January 2010 police attacks have had profound psychological impacts on the Samburu people. A mother of five from Lerata said, “After the police attack, we women could not eat for three days; we just trembled. My children cried out in their sleep, and I couldn’t sleep at all. We heard a rumor that the police would come again, so we took our children out to the bush at night, hiding. I am more afraid of the police than of the wild animals. If they come again, I will run away with my children.”

The women have other worries as well. A 32-year-old mother of five from Kiltamany, who was raped, told me her story: “My husband was away working at the Lodge. I was alone in the house. A car came about 2 p.m., and someone shouted to me, ‘Mother, mother, a car is here.’ The policeman forced himself in. He said, ‘Give me your snuff.’  I said, ‘I don’t have any.’ He said, ‘Give me some sex; I want to rape you.’ Another policeman was shouting, ‘Catch the woman, catch her!’ Then he raped me. Now I am so worried. Will that policeman make me sick with AIDS?”

As one indignant 82-year-old elder in Lerata pointed out, attacking Samburu villages to disarm the residents was wholly unnecessary: “The elders have a list of everyone here who has a gun, so all the police have to do is ask them. But instead they come and beat the women and the children, and steal their things. Women and children don’t have guns, so why are they being raped and beaten?”

Part of the reason for the blind ferocity of the police attacks could be the persistent racism and prejudice that Kenyans who have taken the path toward assimilation and westernization feel toward minority tribes like the Samburu who preserve their traditions. Throughout Kenya, the pastoralists are commonly derided as backward, stupid, and violent, and these racist attitudes make it easier for young police officers to dehumanize the Samburu people.

It is also true that throughout the country, Kenyan police forces have acted with notorious brutality and impunity since colonial times. Last year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary and Summary Executions blasted the Kenyan police, describing them as “a law unto themselves,” and reporting that, “They kill often and with impunity.” He attributed their behavior to their superiors at the highest level of government, who permit them to “kill at will.” Some of these high government officials are now under investigation by prosecutors for the International Criminal Court, and they may be brought to trial for instigating police and intertribal violence after the 2007 election. The police assaults on the Samburu people reveal yet another face of these corrupt and self-serving politicians who have enjoyed impunity too long.

“We are fighting two wars now,” summed up an elder in Lerata, “one against drought and famine, and one against the police. We have no government anymore. We have no country. The government is biased against us. Now our people are frightened and they are leaving their homes and going as far away as they can to hide from the police.” Another elder in Kirish appealed urgently for our help: “We are refugees now in our own country, so we are crying to you from our hearts because our government is against us.”

Paula Palmer is director of Cultural Survival’s Global Response program.

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