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WAGALLA MASSACRE: A breach of international conventions?

By Mohamed Abdullahi

For many years, humanity has been bedeviled by civil strife, atrocities and massacres. As the world experienced technological progress, the nature of war changed to armed conflict with enormous causalities and by the turn of the 20th century massacres of unprecedented levels were committed.

The 2nd world war had a tragic end where an estimated sixty (60) million people were exterminated. Several mass killings followed notably the Srebrenica killing in Bosnia in 1992 in which more than seven thousand Muslim men were killed. Here in Kenya, the Wagalla massacre will go into the annals of history as the worst killings in post independence Kenya.

On February 10 1984, a contingent of Kenyan troops descended on a sleepy and remote Wajir town in the guise of apprehending marauding bandits in the area.

The military visited terror on the locals, rounded up able bodied men notably from the Degodia tribe and after four days of ordeal in a secluded disused air strip, the result was predictable: about 5000 men were butchered, many women were raped in turn by the trigger happy Kenyan military and many were condemned to a life of misery and hardship after their parents perished in these orgy of killings.

Thirty-three years down the line, many Kenyans including the people of the expansive north eastern province which was the epicenter of the killings do not know what actually transpired.

The government’s strategy to impose a media blackout and the precision with which the killings were handled is suspect and to this day reports on the Wagalla massacre are still sketchy. It was only recently that the media unearthed the harrowing tale of how the military whose duty in the constitution is to protect Kenyans turned on the citizens.

For the first time, Kenyans could not believe what their own ‘would be protectors’ could do to their countrymen. The survivors of this horrendous action paint a grim picture of how an entire population was almost wiped out. The government has frequently denied any wrong doing alleging that only 57 people thought to be bandits were killed but living testimonies and records dispute this.

After the end of the 2nd world war and as the sufferings of civilians dawned on humanity, different conventions and treaties were incepted primarily to protect civilians and non combatants.

For instance, the four Geneva conventions and the subsequent additional protocols were ratified to ameliorate human suffering in times of calamities and conflicts. A breach of these international conventions had its own implications ranging from indictment and sanctions by the world community and Wagalla massacre in this case is no exception.

There is need for an unbiased analysis on whether under international laws, what transpired in Wagalla amount to breach of the humanitarian conventions. A brief analysis on this is inevitable and we hope this will instill an increased urgency on the search for the truth and propel the wheels of justice so that survivors will get legal redress.

The word ‘Genocide’ has become a fodder for the media in the recent past particularly after the 1994 Rwandan killings in which an estimated one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were exterminated in an orgy of killings aimed at wiping out the minority Tutsis. Since then, there have been claims of Genocide in Darfur, the Gaza strip, Chechnya among others.

In Sudan, the government’s effort in fighting a breakaway rebel group is immediately termed as Genocide by the world community but the same group maintains ‘a wait and see’ approach on the Gaza killings or even the Wagalla killings, double standards or a conspiracy?

Did the Wagalla massacre constitute genocide? According to the united nations (UN), Genocide is defined as “the attempted or systematic annihilation (killing) of members of an ethnic group or a portion of the population due to religious, ethnic, economic or political affiliations………”.

The excerpts can be analyzed as follows: the massacre was carried out with precision ostensibly to wipe out a section of the population. In this case, since members of one ethnic group were targeted, can this therefore not constitute Genocide?

Secondly, the able bodied men were summarily executed while others were maimed in essence depriving whole families of their breadwinners. Any unbiased critical thinker will confess that this actually amounted to genocide under international law.

The international humanitarian law (IHL) has a provision that, where atrocities are committed, humanitarian personnel should be given immediate access to the wounded so that medical assistance should be provided.

However according to information from the survivors of the massacre and those who witnessed the killings, local groups were barred from even giving the deceased a good send off. Many dead and decomposing bodies were ultimately feasted upon by wild animals. Many of those who perished in the massacre died due to lack of medical attention and others bled to death.

This action by the Kenyan government can only be described as ‘savage’ act and the implication is that the government is guilty of denying the wounded access to medical attention in essence many succumbed to their injuries. In this context, there needs to be a study of the implications to those who barred the medical personnel from accessing the wounded, another example of how the government orchestrated this killing.

In many parts around the globe, women have been affected heavily due to their vulnerability to rape. Rape has been used as a tool of war to silence opponents and to instill fear in the population.

The United Nations indicate that many women were gang raped by the military and the local militia in the DRC. Similarly, in Wagalla, there are chilling tales of women raped by the Kenyan forces and the most harrowing story is that of an Eight-month expectant mother raped in turn.

Those who experience this spate of raping are up to this day nursing the wounds while others have developed medical complications such as urine incontinence and remember vividly how the security men pounced on them and satisfied their insatiable male desires! Here again, in a blatant breach of international conventions rape was used to silence the hard toiling mothers of Wajir who experienced the demise of their husbands in the hands of the security forces.

The world has seen an unprecedented clamour to punish the perpetrators of Genocides and war crimes. Of particular concern is the barrage of international clamour to arrest and prosecute Sudan President Omar El bashir over the Darfur conflict.

The international criminal court (ICC) has been specifically interested in the Darfur case ostensibly to set an example to the world. However, what barred the UN and other international bodies such as the ICC to punish those who orchestrated the Wagalla massacre is suspect and smells of a conspiracy to maintain the status quo. The speed and urgency with which human rights organizations follow the happenings in Darfur only strengthens the public opinion that the ICC is selective in its activities and approach.

Every day as the dusk approaches, survivors of Wagalla killings wait with an apprehensive eye on when the wheels of justice will rotate and those who caused death and destruction in Wagalla are punished. It’s our firm belief that as you go through this feature, it will dawn on you that crimes of unimaginable proportions were committed and the agitation for justice should be propelled further.

The writer is an Economist and comments on regional issues. He can be reached on his email

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