Lost innocence: Inside the world of lethal child warriors

Boys pose with guns. CHEBOITE KIGEN | NATION

The Swahili writing on his kanga, “Usiulize Mungu” (Don’t question God) seemed to, without asking, answer the question why a 10-year-old boy is effortlessly carrying a five-kilogramme Cold War–era G3 rifle whose length is almost his height.

Peter Lomogong and his friends, all boys and three to five years shy of becoming teenagers, watched over as their cattle, hundreds of them, quenched their thirst at a common water point under the hot sun in Kibish.

Not only were all the boys armed, but there were so many guns at the water point that some of them had been hung on tree branches as their owners watched over the cows, took a bath or just participated in small talk.

The water point, the only one for several kilometres, is a common meeting place in the afternoon before everyone disperses for the night.

Excited about our visit in an area where very few outsiders dare to go, the boys performed war dances that involved placing their guns in a circle on the ground and then running around before everyone rushes back to pick up his weapon.

The symphony of sounds made by bells hung on the strongest bulls as they hovered around the water point plus the cocking and uncocking of guns as the boys sang gave the atmosphere of a region in war.

We were not in some failed state in West Africa. We were in Kibish, the farthest point in the northwest from Nairobi, on the border between Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia in Turkana County, standing in front of Kenyan child warriors.

“The AK-47 can fire more bullets, yes, but this one can hit an enemy up in those hills,” said Lomogong, referring to his G3.

At the age of 10, children like Lomogong are left to defend the community from cattle rustlers from neighbouring countries or other warring tribes.

As children in other parts of the country are spending days with their teachers trying to internalise the contents of the Competency Based Curriculum, in Kibish, in the northernmost part of the country to the west, boys like Lomogong learn how to herd and protect cows from possible intruders.

In an area where violence can erupt within a split second, children are forced to grow up fast. Weighing at least five kilos, a G3 rifle, like those policemen carry, can tire a strong man when made to carry it the whole day.

But in Kibish, young boys not only walk around with heavy and high-calibre rifles handed to them by their relatives to protect cows but also know how to use them when confronted with danger.

In mid 2017, when about 12 raiders from neighbouring South Sudan raided Turkana, the moran they found standing in their way was Eregae Lokobonyo, a teenager with a boyish smile who referred to sweets as “things eaten by children”.

“About three of them tried to take my gun,” said Lokobonyo.

“When I overpowered the first one and shot him, the two others tried to run away but I shot at them. That day I killed three of them as the rest fled like chickens,” he narrated.

In the wild north, Turkana men get tattoos in the form of straight marks inscribed by a hot iron on their hand to show the number of “enemies” one has killed. Lokobonyo had three marks, which he proudly showed us.

Failed by the State and adults around them, the children of Kibish have been sucked into an armed conflict they played no part in creating.

An armed boy grazes his family's cattle in Kiboch. CHEBOITE KIGEN | NATION

The UN Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which Kenya ratified in 2002, binds all parties to take all possible measures to protect children from being used in any form of armed conflict within their borders.

“Armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a State should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years,” says the treaty.

“States parties shall take all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use, including the adoption of legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalise such practices,” it says.

Furthermore, the Children’s Act notes: “Every child shall be protected from economic exploitation and any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”

But even with all these laws meant to protect children, communities in Kibish who have been alienated from modern society trust their own guns than protection from the government. Without them the communities here believe they would have been run down years ago by the Donyiro.

The Donyiro, also known as Nyangatom, is a community from Ethiopia that, like the Turkana, claim rights to Kibish. The Toposa from South Sudan also claim rights to the area.

The three communities, together with the Karamojong of Uganda and the Jie, also from South Sudan, speak closely related languages and are collectively known as the Karamojong Cluster.

They have constantly been at war for the past century and Kibish has been the epicentre of this unending battle for grazing rights and livestock.

As a result, their guns are so loved that they are decorated with insignia like beads, goat skins and fur in the belief that they can make you invisible to enemy bullets.

“Without those guns, you could not even access this place, as the Donyiro could be roaming all over,” explained Lopem Ekiru, an elder from the area.

They will not be able to integrate to a peaceful society because they have grown up knowing that everyone is an enemy

Although the area is lucky to have a sub-county divisional police headquarters, a base for the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU), units of the dreaded Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU) and the Border Patrol Unit from the Administration Police (AP), it is also a place where your security is not guaranteed.

After a series of deadly clashes, with one of the bloodiest costing almost 100 lives about nine years ago, locals, who live on the edge, post sentries in strategic places to be on the lookout for any sign of trouble. Every homestead in Kibish has at least one gun, a local resident told the Nation.

With the Donyiro and the Toposa still heavily armed, the government says it cannot ask Kibish residents to surrender their arms as it will expose them to attacks from across the border.

“You know, Kenya does not exist in an island; we have neighbours. And if you look at southern Ethiopia and South Sudan, possession of firearms is not such a big deal,” said Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya.

“Because of this situation, we have decided that we will not disarm the Turkanas in that area unless we have an agreement with Sudan and Ethiopia,” he said.

However, one of the problems with this policy is that children are now being sucked into the conflict not as victims but as soldiers, a fact that psychologists say will harm them long after they become adults.

“Children in such situations not only lose their child innocence but also suffer traumatic stress as they develop, which will lead to severe personality disorder when they become adults,” said Dr Philomena Ndambuki, a child psychologist and lecturer at Kenyatta University.

“Long-term exposure to guns and violence deprives children of normal and healthy development. In the long run, they will not be able to integrate to a peaceful society because they have grown up knowing that everyone is an enemy. It’s a pity,” she said.

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