Kisii land row: Why murdered woman won't rest in peace

The late Catherine Sarange in a photo taken in 2016.

Photo credit: Ruth Mbula | Nation Media Group

The remains of Ms Catherine Sarange will have to stay longer in the mortuary after her relatives said they would not inter them until she gets back her land.

This is despite the High Court in Kisii sentencing four people found guilty of aiding her murder to 15 years’ imprisonment each.

The family had four years ago told the Nation that they would only bury the remains of Ms Sarange if her killers are brought to book, but apparently it will take longer for her spirit to rest.

At the time, the Nation exposed the authorities’ laxity in arresting the suspected killers, but after the story was published, they arrested four suspects, who have since been found guilty of aiding her murder.

Ms Sarange was reported missing from her home in Jogoo estate, near Kisii town, on June 2, 2017. Her headless body was found in a sewage manhole wrapped in a polythene bag, a month after she had disappeared.

Her body has been lying at the Kisii Teaching and Referral Hospital mortuary for five years, awaiting the conclusion of cases pertaining to her murder and the disputed land.

On Wednesday, her family said they would only bury her after she gets back her land, which she died for.

Two cases on the disputed land are pending at the Kisii law courts.

“We will only inter her remains after she gets back her land. She died because she did not want to give it to the people who later killed her. Where will we bury her if not in her land?” wondered Mr James Ateka.

Mr Ateka said though they are relieved that four people involved in the murder have been jailed and that justice has partially been served, all they want now is her land.

After the discovery of Ms Sarange’s dismembered body, her children and family members were taken away into a safe house under the witness protection to avoid the same fate.

“Her five children and husband were put under witness protection by the state. We are grateful for that. They have reason to smile because even though her main killers were not found, those who were involved are serving their sentences,” said Mr Ateka.

Mr Sarange’s relatives questioned why police had not arrested the man suspected of being the grandmaster in the murder plot.

“While we are happy for the judgment, we want to know why police have never arrested the man suspected to be behind the murder plot together with the actual killer,” said Mr Bernard Mogaka.

Mr Mogaka said Ms Sarange’s case is a microcosm of the emotive issues around land disputes in Kisii, a community whose population has exploded, with ever-increasing numbers squeezed into tiny plots.

The latest statistics from the authorities show that at least seven people are killed every month in the region. Some 126 people have lost their lives in the past 17 months, mostly over land-related disputes.

Police say the numbers represent cases reported between January 1, 2021 and May 2022. The incidents have left security officers in the county scratching their heads, with calls on residents to resolve their disputes peacefully.

“Land is a very emotive issue in Kisii. People tend to take the law into their own hands instead of waiting for justice to take its course,” said Kisii County Police Commander Francis Kooli.

In her judgment, Justice Rose Ougo said Joseph Odicho Adogo, Evans Nyoka Ongeri, Ronald Ogwangi Ondieki and Lameck Rioba Sakawa were guilty of being accessories to murder.

Before her disappearance, Ms Sarange had resisted pressure from a tycoon who allegedly wanted to displace her family from their land to create room for the expansion of his investment project.

Justice Ougo observed that the motive for Ms Sarange’s killing was clear and that it was related to her land, for which she had been threatened.

When her body was found with her head cut off, police in Kisii went slow and gradually abandoned investigations, without any indications that they were interested in nailing the suspects.

In a blow-by-blow account, the judge explained how the four accused aided in murdering Ms Sarange and how each of their actions led to their incrimination.

She said the evidence given in court by Ms Sarange’s two children was corroborated. The children identified the accused, who were well known to them.

“The accused persons were seen in the homestead of Sarange on the night she was murdered. With the help of the light from the moon, they were seen carrying the body of Sarange in a sack from a blood-stained house which had remained locked during the day to a waiting vehicle,” said Justice Ougo.

The judge pointed out that there was not enough evidence directly linking the four accused persons to the murder of Ms Sarange.

She, however, noted that there was reason to believe that the accused had tried to conceal the victim’s murder as testified by the woman’s two children and other witnesses.

The judge said the four were identified as the ones who had threatened her of dire consequences following the land dispute, which is still pending in court.

Ms Sarange disappeared 24 hours before she was scheduled to appear in court and give evidence on the land dispute, which was ongoing at the time.

Judge Ougo also referenced the evidence from Ms Sarange’s mother, Ms Teresa Kemunto Samuel, who gave an account of the tribulations her daughter had gone through before she was found brutally murdered.

“Kemunto said she was taken to the place where her daughter’s body was found. She was lying down there. She saw the body, it was decayed. She saw her legs and her clothes and there was a net tied around her stomach. She had no head on her body,” said the judge.

In her testimony, Ms Kemunto told the court about the procedures that police used to determine her blood relationship with Ms Sarange.

They took her samples, which included nails. They took Ms Kemunto to Kisumu twice in their efforts to make sure that she was the mother of the deceased woman.

Ms Kemunto told the court that on the day her daughter went missing, she found a man at her homestead and her grandchild informed her that he was burning Ms Sarange’s clothes.

She also said that she asked the man why he was in the homestead when the owners were away, but he said he was waiting for Ms Sarange to pay him for the work he had done. The man used to work for her daughter.

“When I returned to the place, I found many police officers. They had arrested the man,” said Ms Kemunto, adding that the man was not among the four suspects in court.

Police released the man later in unclear circumstances. After being released, he went into hiding.