Thousands of civilians displaced by violence related to land disputes in Mt Elgon, western Kenya, need urgent assistance, according to local leaders.
“About 50 houses were destroyed today [10 December] in three villages in Cheptais division,” Wycliffe Chongin, a local church leader, told IRIN at Kapsokwony, the Mt Elgon District headquarters, after local officials met UN representatives.
During the meeting, chaired by District Commissioner Birik Mohamed, several leaders said little effort had been made to help the displaced, especially those who had sought refuge in neighbouring districts.
“The situation of women and children is especially pathetic,” said Janepher Mbatiany, an official of the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation, a national women’s group.
“What Mt Elgon needs most is peace, the displaced need to come back home, children will need help to resume learning when schools re-open; this is not possible without peace.”
“We have appealed to the government to intervene and stop the destruction of homes and instead go after the fighters in the bush,” Chongin said. “The [dusk to dawn] curfew that was recently imposed in the district is, for instance, hurting mostly civilians as those caught violating it are charged KSh 3,000 [US$50]. What do you do if you have to take a wounded person for treatment?”
Chongin alleged that security officers destroyed the houses in an operation aimed at flushing out members of the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), a key player in the year-old land-related conflict that has ravaged the district. He said hundreds of displaced people, who had initially fled violence in their homes in Kopsiro Division, had been caught up in the latest security operations, and become displaced again.
The conflict involves two main clans of the dominant Sabaot community – the majority Soy clan and the minority Ndorobo clan – and revolves around disputed government allocation of land to squatters in a settlement scheme known as Chebyuk. The district has an estimated population of 150,000.
According to the district commissioner, at least 45,000 people have been displaced and 132 died since 2006.
However, he said although the situation was calm, “isolated” incidents of insecurity were being experienced. He added that a series of security operations had been launched, targeting SLDF members, who operate from the bush and had acquired firearms from a neighbouring country.
Mohamed was addressing members of the UN delegation, led by Jeanine Cooper, head of the Kenya office of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Representatives of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Development Programme (UNDP), Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), Kenya Human Rights Commission, European Union elections observer mission, and the government’s National Disaster Operation were part of the delegation.
“We are in Mt Elgon to support the peace-building efforts on the ground,” Cooper said. “Through our local partners [NGOs and government organisations] we would like to reinforce and support activities aimed at bringing peace to the district.”
Welcoming the efforts of the UN-led delegation to support activities on the ground, Mohamed also appealed to the international community to help vulnerable people in the district by providing food items and non-food items.
On 4 December, the KRCS appealed for Ksh 1.2 million to help IDPs for 12 months.
Aid workers said security operations had limited access to the vulnerable in the past three weeks. “Violence has increased in the past month but access to those affected has decreased because of the ongoing security operations,” an aid worker, who requested anonymity, said. “At the moment we are getting reports of shooting going on daily; there is a great need for not only relief aid but civilian protection.”
However, Mohamed said the government was committed to the protection of civilians and would not condone violence.
“As a government, we have put in place enough security measures to counter the SLDF; it is the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens,” he said. “We have worked out dialogue sessions to try and reconcile the warring groups as we believe dialogue is the best weapon to counter violence.”
Mohamed said the root cause of the conflict was land but that it had since become political as the country approaches general elections on 27 December.
“We are appealing to all leaders in the district to approach the elections in a peaceful manner; we have held meetings with officials of the Electoral Commission of Kenya and we have put in place measures to ensure that the polls are held in a free and fair manner,” Mohamed said.