Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Kenya’s lawless jungle where women watch slaughter of husbands

Esther Chebor, from the volatile Chemoe in Baringo North, remembers one day in 2017 like it was yesterday.

It was the day her world came tumbling down, and she was left a widow to fend for her six children.

Her husband Thomas Chebor, the Ng’orora location chief, was gunned down while pursuing stolen livestock.

He was killed by armed bandits suspected to be from a neighbouring community as he led an operation to Chepkokel to recover stolen animals, just five kilometers from Sibilo, where Deputy President William Ruto was leading a peace meeting.

The chief had only one year remaining before he would retire.

Angered by the developments, the DP issued a shoot-to-kill order against the bandits and promised that the government would deploy more security officers and police reservists to stop the attacks.

Margaret Adoket during the interview on July 30, 2021. 

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

“Things have not been the same for me and my children after the killing of my husband by armed bandits four years ago, because we solely depended on him on virtually everything,” Ms Chebor recalls.

“When the incident happened, we fled to a safer place with other villagers and drove the few remaining livestock to Chapin, more than 15km away, after rumours spread that hundreds of the armed criminals had been spotted in the village.”

A teary Esther Rotok during an interview at Chemoe trading centre on July 30, 2021.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Scared, women fled the area driving goats and with their children on their backs, while men stayed behind to herd the remaining cattle from the bushes.

“We pitched camp at Chapin Primary School. The place was overcrowded but we had no alternative. We got wind that the government was distributing relief food at Barbarchun and we embarked on another journey of more than five kilometres to get two kilograms of maize, at least to save the starving children and the elderly,” she said.

As they waited to get a share of the food aid, they spotted a speeding Kenya Red Cross vehicle.

“I overheard people talking in hushed tones at the shopping centre that a chief had been gunned down by armed criminals. I did not expect that it was my husband, only for some government officials to come and relay the news to me the following day at the school where we were camping,” she said amid sobs.

When her husband died, Ms Chebor recalls, the couple had a child in university and two others in secondary school, and now she was left alone to take care of the expenses.

Three months later, keen to pick up the pieces of their lives, Ms Chebor and other locals went back to their villages and built new temporary houses at Chemoe shopping centre, a few metres from the Anti-Stock Theft Unit (ASTU) camp, where they felt safer from bandit strikes.

When they left their insecure villages, their houses were looted and vandalised, and some were torched by bandits, who still unleash terror in the boundary area.

Monica Chepkok with two of her five children.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

“As I speak, I live with my children in a small house at the shopping centre, with school fees to pay and other necessities. I have a small kiosk that is not sustainable either as all our livestock were driven away by armed criminals,” she said.

“The government had promised to cater for me and my two co-wives but we are wallowing in poverty, yet our husband was felled by bandits while on duty.”

Besides her husband, she said, the losses are innumerable.

“We have resigned to our fate, not knowing what will happen as we have been left at the mercy of the gun-toting bandits. Most children here have dropped out of school after their parents were killed, while others are paupers after their livestock were wiped away by the rustlers.”

Her story represents the cries of women, widowed by banditry in this insecurity-prone region of Baringo as attacks escalate.

They are stories of pain, anguish, resilience and the will to live in the most daring of circumstances where one is just one easily purchased bullet away from death or becoming a widow, with hungry children to feed, no income and cattle stolen.

In these volatile boundary areas, men are given the responsibility of herding livestock to guard them from being stolen by a neighbouring community.

They are also tasked with protecting the community from invasion by a perceived enemy, a situation that puts them in harm’s way, and their wives a bullet away from being widowed.

Margaret Adoket, 56, from the banditry-prone Kagir, lost her husband Adoket Dike to bandits in 2018 when he was herding livestock in Barsuswo village.

Jane Kiptios during an interview on July 30, 2021.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

He was with other men when they were ambushed by rustlers suspected to be from neighbouring Tiaty sub-county who shot him dead before driving away more than 50 goats, rendering the household poor.

“Not only did I lose my husband but also our entire livelihood, leaving me to fend for my eight children with no income. I had done some farming but owing to the dry spell in the area, the crops dried up. The farms are not safe either, because the bandits may strike anytime,” she said.

When the bandits struck, villagers went on a mass exodus to neighbouring Kagir, 10km away, and Ms Adoket said the village is still deserted.

When they fled, the criminals vandalised and torched houses so that the owners would not come back anymore.

“I lost everything and had nothing to eat. I was taking care of my nine children alone and they went to bed hungry for days, not to mention lacking where to sleep because the entire village was displaced and all of us could not be accommodated in houses in the neighbouring village. We slept under trees for some time despite the presence of criminals,” she said.

Ms Adoket now makes charcoal for sale so she can earn money to buy food and other necessities for her children.

“Even though it is a dangerous venture, we have no option. You are also not guaranteed that you will get a buyer and armed criminals hide in the same bushes where we burn the charcoal,” she said.

“We live one day at a time and if you are lucky to go home unscathed, you thank God and move on.”

She believes the government owes her and the other widows some form of compensation.

“The government should compensate us, because not only have we lost our people, but also the livestock that is our main livelihood to bandits. Some of my children have dropped out of school for lack of money to pay for their fees,” she said.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

“What is the future of such children who live knowing that they were impoverished by criminals? They may resort to engaging in the same activity if no urgent interventions are made.”

Life also took a drastic turn for Jane Kiptios, 38, when armed criminals shot dead her husband in 2007 in the grazing fields and made away with more than 50 cattle.

When he died, her co-wife also left because of high poverty, leaving her to fend for nine children.

“We have been displaced from our homes countless times, forcing us to walk for dozens of kilometres with our young children to safer villages,” said Ms Kiptios, who now makes charcoal for sale.

“Expectant women gave birth on the way while some starved to death in temporary camps. Some women have also died of depression owing to the challenges they face while straining to provide for their children.”

The distraught woman says many children must now work as labourers to help families with basic necessities, hampering their education as some end up dropping out of school.

Monica Chepkok is also putting up at other people’s houses with her five children after her husband was gunned down last year.

At 29, Ms Chepkok has no house of her own, and relies on well-wishers to feed and clothe.

Her husband Samuel Chepkok, a motorcyclist, was shot dead last year in the dangerous Kagir-Loyamorok road as he headed to Marigat.

“He left me when my fifth child was barely a month old and I was too weak to even engage in menial work. I also had to relocate from our village because it was deserted and unsafe for me and my children,” she said.

“As I speak, I have no house and I’m being hosted by other villagers. Though he was not rich, he used to ensure that we were taken care of.”

Kagir Primary School headteacher Thomas Kibet regretted that rampant bandit attacks had rendered many children orphans.

“In my school, for instance, half of the learners are total or partial orphans who cannot get basic necessities including food. Most of them rely on one meal they get at school for their survival,” he said.

The situation in the villages is grim.

While whole villages have been deserted, crowded grass-thatched huts have mushroomed close to Kagir, Yatya and Chemoe shopping centres, where locals have fled for their safety because they are close to security camps.

The deserted villages are overgrown with bushes and dead silent, safe for chirping birds and monkeys.

Some schools, including Chepkew, Kamwetio and Chepkesin, have been closed for several years because incessant flare-ups of violence prompted parents and their children to move to safer areas. Teachers have also been killed.

Richard Chepchomei, an elder from Chemoe, said some of the deserted schools have been vandalised by armed criminals, who steal solar panels and destroy desks and boreholes and even torch learning materials such as books and beds.

Their motive, he said, is to force people to move from the areas permanently so the attackers can expand their territories.

He accused the government of being lenient on criminals, who he claimed are roaming the deserted villages and killing anyone on sight.

A hill in Kagir village has earned the nickname Kismayu (for the port city in war-torn Somalia), with locals claiming that hundreds of people from the two neighbouring communities, Pokot and Tugen, fought in the area in 2006 for an entire day while trying to recover stolen livestock.

The daylong exchange of fire claimed the lives of several people and hundreds of livestock were also driven away by the neighbouring community towards Tiaty sub-county.

The hill is said to be a watch tower for criminals, who usually survey the area to see where locals graze and plan strikes to steal their livestock.

In 2017, more than 11 women and children from the minority Ilchamus community were butchered by armed criminals in one evening in Mukutani, on the boundary of Tiaty and Baringo South sub-counties, in what was suspected to be a retaliatory attack.

The attack hit the headlines and prompted the government to launch a KDF-led massive disarmament campaign in the locality, which was also gazetted as a dangerous area.

The genesis of the attack was March 14, 2017 when two women from the neighbouring Pokot community were shot dead in the morning by armed criminals near Mosuro, Baringo South.

The 6am incident happened when the armed criminals sprayed bullets on a police vehicle. The duo from Mukutani, who had hitched a ride, were killed on the spot.

The women were heading to Kabarnet, the county’s capital, on personal business.

In what was thought to be a revenge mission, armed bandits suspected to be from the neighbouring community invaded Mukutani Primary School and attacked locals from the Ilchamus community who had taken refuge there after receiving a tip about a looming fight.

In the evening attack, seven women and four children were killed and three others were seriously injured, prompting the government to evacuate villagers to Eldume, more than 70km away, where they lived in temporary camps for more than a year.

Margaret Seuru, 40, a mother of eight, said she saw it all at the temporary camp where they had relocated following the skirmishes.

“The situation at the camp had been bad, especially for young children and expectant women. We relied on the government and well-wishers for relief food because we fled our homes without taking anything. We could get food from the government and churches and sometimes we could go without any,” she lamented.

“I have a five-month old baby that I gave birth to in this camp. Though I was lactating, sometimes I went without food, meaning my newborn could get enough breast milk. Young children also suffered from malnutrition because there was no milk or a special meal.”

Her tent, she said, could not accommodate all her eight children and the older ones opted to spend their nights outside so that she could sleep with the younger ones.

“Our community (Ilchamus) has very strict cultural beliefs and teens are not supposed to sleep in one house with their parents, but this could not apply at the camp because one household was given one tent that served as the kitchen, bedroom and everything else. It was hard living here,” she explained.

Jackline Olekidogo, a mother of four who was cuddling a week-old baby, also said conditions were not suitable for young children.

“We were given the tents by World Vision when we arrived at our new ‘home’. The area is very hot and dusty, especially during the day and was not good for small children, who suffered from frequent chest coughs,” she said.

“The place is also prone to floods during the rainy season, which was challenging because we were living in deplorable conditions with lack of basic necessities like water and mosquito nets.”

She said the tents also got torn and children, the elderly and expectant women slept on the floor with no bedding and they contracted the common flu due to the biting cold and overcrowding. Mosquitoes also were a big problem at night.

“Our children had to attend classes in neighboring Losampurmpur Primary School, more than 20km away. Even the younger ones had to become boarders and we could not monitor how they were doing in school till the end of term,” she said.

Many children also dropped out of school for lack of school fees.

“After we were displaced from our homes, we were reduced to paupers as we could not farm or raise livestock, which we used to depend on for our livelihoods,” she said.

“In the camp we could depend on well-wishers for assistance and some opted to be casual labourers on farms around there but this did not bring in enough money to pay school fees and so most of the children dropped out of school.”

Bandits later torched the deserted houses, vandalised shops and looted whatever they found, said Mukutani ward representative Renson Parkei.

“The bandits found five women taking refuge in a shop and sprayed them mercilessly with bullets, killing them on the spot, and they shot young children fleeing to the neighbouring Mukutani Primary School. It was a sad incident that we do not want to remember,” he said.

While in previous decades the stolen livestock was redistributed or used to pay bride price in pastoralist communities, rustling has more recently become a form of organised crime.

It has also become commercialised, with stolen animals being sold, often across international borders rather than being kept in communities.

Steadily increasing incidents of armed cattle rustling, especially during droughts, have led pastoralist communities to conclude that they should acquire modern automatic weapons.

Armed attacks can unleash a vicious cycle of revenge attacks and in an ethnically charged environment, they can lead to escalating arms races between rival communities