A week ago, this place was full of life, with children playing, women engaging in house chores and herds of cattle roaming the compounds and neighbouring villages under the watchful eye of young boys and men. Today, it’s deserted.
A lone dog, scrawny and dejected, rests under a tree in the deserted compound of its owner in Kosile village in Baringo County, a living metaphor of the fate of a community that has been scarred by a silent war.
Jacob Kimosop, the dog’s owner, is never going to come back. He was killed by bandits a few days ago. The rest of the family fled for safety, leaving the canine behind.
The attackers, armed with guns, struck in the evening, shooting Kimosop dead before driving away all his cattle. His family didn’t even have the time to mourn him; they fled to seek refuge in nearby villages. Some 10km away is Yatya village, where terrified students are sitting their Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam. Bandits raided the centre a week ago and drove away the chief’s estimated 300 goats.
Kosile, Yatya, Chemoi, Chepkoi and Kagir are Kenya’s forgotten battlegrounds, where, everyday, guns sound the drums of war and peace is an elusive mirage.
Every family has a sad story to tell and is asking the same question: “In this republic, are we children of a lesser god?”
Hundreds of kilometres away in Nairobi, politicians and bureaucrats are on the campaign trail, cumulatively spending hundreds of millions of shillings every week to woo voters. Neither President Kenyatta nor Deputy President William Ruto have visited this lawless region.
Presidential hopeful Raila Odinga has not pronounced himself on what he will do, or what the government needs to do now, to end the suffering. None of those seeking the presidency has.
In this desolate place, every sunrise does not guarantee one the peace of watching the sunset, and Luka Kimalit knows this only too well. He was in the company of his two friends an hour before we visited, patrolling the village and trying to guard the only place they have known as home since they were born, when they bumped into bandits.
“We were just less than 100 metres from them when we heard a crackling sound as though someone was cocking a gun,” he said.
A melee ensued. Bullets started flying everywhere. Screams in the bushes. The nauseating smell of gunpowder and beckoning death. The battle took perhaps less than five minutes, but for Kimalit, it felt like eternity. In the end, they managed to repulse the attackers, but they know they will come again... perhaps better armed and better manned.
Makeshift refugee camp
In Chepkewel village, where the Nation found hundreds huddled in a makeshift refugee camp, every nightfall brings with it an agonising fear for the women and children who shelter here.
There are no men in sight, only small boys and their sisters and mothers. The men are at war, away in the hills and valleys of Baringo. Away from their families, whom they might never see again. Mama Magdalyn Chepsoiyo is cooking as her two daughters sit down waiting for the meal of ugali and kale to be ready. It’s a rush against time to prepare the supper before the sun sets, “for seeing the day is never guaranteed”, she says.
“We’ve always believed we’re neighbours, but now they are attacking us. Even if we stop keeping cattle and venture into something else like boda boda business, they will still waylay us on the road,” Marop Kandagor, a resident of Kagir said.
James Kaptum of Yatya wondered: “Where’s the government? We hear there are police officers guarding us, but they, too, fear for their lives. Where’s [Baringo Senator] Gideon Moi? And where is [Interior Cabinet Secretary] Fred Matiang’i?”
A few kilometres away at Kapkamole village, Esther Rotumoi endures the scorching sun as she makes tea in an open kitchen under a tree. This is breakfast for her seven children.
Together with 15 other families, Esther and her children have found refuge at Kandagor Marimar’s homestead, more than 10km from their Katulia village in Kapturo, Baringo North. She’s now a widow after losing her husband to the bandits.
Hundreds fled Sitek, Kamukule, Kapkormate and Katulia villages after Esther’s husband, Joseph Rotumoi, was shot dead by the bandits. He was among eight people killed on March 5 in separate attacks in the region. The families could not all fit into the three mud-walled, grass-thatched huts in Marimars’ homestead, forcing some to shelter under the trees.
Esther, who is yet to come to terms with the death of her husband, said he was accompanying her to fetch water at a nearby river early in the morning when they ran into the bandits. Rotumoi, 56, succumbed to gun injuries while being rushed to a hospital in Kabarnet.
Esther is among more than 1,000 families in Baringo North and Baringo South affected by the fighting amid a looming humanitarian crisis, according to Kenya Red Cross South Rift Regional Manager Vivian Kibon.
Speaking during food distribution in Ishakanin two weeks ago, Ms Kibon said Kenya Red Cross and its partners have been providing food and psychosocial support to the affected families. She cited the worst-hit areas as Mochongoi ward in Baringo South and Bartabwa and Saimo Soi wards in Baringo North.
“From our survey, more than 591 families have been displaced in Baringo South while 500 others have been affected in Baringo North. We have distributed food that will last [them] more than one month,” she said.
Over 23 people have been killed since the beginning of March. They include security officers.
When the bandits struck Kapkomole village, women had little time to collect their belongings, including food, utensils and a few clothing as they trudged up the hills with young children and the elderly, while men gathered livestock and drove them away from the village.
The Nation arrived at the camp around 1pm to the disturbing sight of frail children sitting under gnarled trees as they waited for their parents, who had gone to collect food, which the Kenya Red Cross was distributing in Ishakanin, some seven kilometres away.
Donning a shuka around his waist, 80-year-old Kipsetim Kimwetich sat on a stone under a tree a short distance from his wife, Sogome. At their age, they also had to walk from Sitek village, five kilometres away, the rugged terrain notwithstanding.
Alicen Kiptoo, also displaced, sat with her three children, breastfeeding the youngest. Her breasts didn’t have any milk to speak of, and the baby kept wailing.
Most of them still wore the same clothes they left their homes with, braving the cold nights sleeping on bare floors with no blankets or mosquito nets. The camps were crowded, exposing them to diseases. Water was scarce and there were no toilets.
“We fear that children will suffer respiratory diseases due to the biting cold. The situation could worsen if the long rains come because we don’t have shelter,” Kiptoo said. “Some of them are starting to develop malnutrition. We are staring at tough times ahead.
“If the government and other well-wishers don’t come to our rescue, children, expectant women and the elderly will starve.”
Kiptoo has been displaced four times since 2006.
Peninah Kimakal said that whenever they returned to their homes during peacetime, they found their houses looted, vandalised and razed.
Only bows and arrows
“Some of us may be forced to start our lives afresh. We had ploughed our farms ready for the planting season,” she said.
Elder Henry Shakameta said bandits had taken over all the water points and lay in wait to attack anyone who dared venture there. Men are no longer able to spend time with their families. They’ve been left behind to keep guard against the criminals, armed with only bows and arrows.
“The government is too lenient on these bandits,” he said. “What will happen if all communities armed themselves in self-defence?”
Anna Kacuvi, a Christian missionary in Kapturo, who has served in the area for more than 20 years, said most children are suffering from psychosocial trauma after their parents or relatives were killed.
“Parents are depressed after losing their livelihoods. I’ve been forced to take care of abandoned children who were left behind as people fled to safety.”
The Nation found young schoolboys, armed with bows and arrows, carrying out patrols in deserted villages. They’ve taken to protecting the community.
Security officers in the volatile areas are not safe from the criminals either. Many of them have been killed while carrying out patrols or pursuing stolen animals.
Just two weeks ago, a senior police officer was shot dead and his colleague injured in Kapkechir in Baringo South.
Baringo County Police Commander Adamson Bungei said General Service Unit officers in Lamaiywe were on patrol when they were attacked.