Heartbreak in Kenya
WARNING: CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT
Garsen, Tana Delta, Kenya
By Siegfried Modola
When I got into photography and started my career as a freelance documentary photojournalist at the age of 29, I had to decide to either move from Kenya, the country where I lived and grew up for most of my life, or to stay.
I believe the latter choice has made an important difference in the way I perceive, follow and conceptualize the stories that I work on. Kenya feels like home. I know the region and speak the language. I feel an intimate connection with the country that comes with having a history with the place, years of building relationships and having enough time to go in-depth in my work.
As one of the most important elections of the country’s history is approaching on March 4, 2013, with the outcome determining Kenya’s path for years to come, I decided to cover the inter-communal violence that seems to be intensifying in some regions.
This led me to travel repeatedly to the Tana Delta District in the Coast Province, where a quiet and lethal war between two communities has been escalating since August 2012. Some 160 people have been killed in ferocious tit-for-tat retaliatory attacks between the Orma pastoralists and the settled Pokomo farmers. Many of the victims have been women and children; unprepared, vulnerable and too slow to flee the sudden raids that have occurred, almost always at dawn.
Animosity between the two communities has been an underlying factor in the region for decades. The Pokomo, living on the land they farm, usually always close to the lifeline of this place, the river Tana; and the Ormas, needing grazing land and a free passage to bring their cattle to drink at the very same river. In times of drought these two different ways of living have predictably, but sadly, clashed over the natural resources and the rights of passage.
However, there are now worried voices that say the violence may be becoming increasingly geopolitical in motivation. Never, since August of last year, have the attacks been so ferocious and militant in their precision and planning. Villagers have reported waves of 300 raiders, armed with guns, machetes and spears, storming villages, torching homes and killing as many people as possible before disappearing back into the bush.
I have been covering this conflict for the last four months, traveling from my Nairobi base at short notice when I hear of an attack or a disarmament exercise by the police force. Yesterday, I arrived just a couple of hours following the aftermath of an attack by Ormas on the predominately Pokomo village of Kibusu. At least ten people had been killed, five of whom were children.
It was the hardest day I ever experienced photographing social unrest in Kenya, or anywhere else for that matter. A rope was tightening inside my chest as I walked through the burning houses and took in the devastation of the attack. Most of the victims had been identified and put into body bags by the Kenyan Red Cross before I arrived. But some of the bodies had yet to be recovered.
Sally Margaret and her one-and-a-half year old daughter Patience laid on the ground close to each other near the remains of a home torched by the attackers. From a short distance, Patience seemed as if she was sleeping, her eyes closed, her mother’s arm underneath her head, as if they were still trying to embrace each other. They had sustained multiple gunshots.
The victims of Kibusu were buried in a single mass grave near their village, just like the victims of all the other previous attacks.
Today, an uneasy and somewhat surreal calm has fallen upon the region, but the anger, the pain and grief are discernible in the air as I visited communities in different villages. Everyone asks why, with all the police security put into place by the government, people are still being attacked and the killings still carry on unabated. Most disturbingly one can read the cold fear in people’s eyes, that they, and their children, could fall victim to the next vicious cycle of a revenge attacks.