East Africa

Bodies burned: international ruling evokes memories of Kenya election violence


The international criminal court’s decision to abandon its prosecution of Kenya’s deputy president William Ruto has prompted a moment of national soul-searching.

Ruto was accused of orchestrating a brutal campaign of violence in late 2007 after the Kenyan opposition chief Raila Odinga, who is from the Luo ethnic group, accused the then-president, Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, of rigging the elections.

A wave of brutal attacks followed, leading to the deaths of an estimated 1,300 people across the country.

For the local journalists sent to cover the violence, many of whom were untrained in war or conflict reporting, Ruto’s dismissal last week has brought back difficult memories.

It also reopens a painful question: who will be held account for the violence they witnessed?

‘I was locked inside a mortuary’

For the award-winning Standard reporter Anthony Gitonga, based in Naivasha, a town north-west of Nairobi, the post-election violence stands out as one of the most difficult stories he has ever covered.

He remembers being locked inside a district mortuary and having to count dead bodies. “I was taking photos when I suddenly stepped on a lady’s fingers. It was then that it hit me that I was in a room full of hundreds of dead bodies stacked on each other. My first reaction was to run to the door, but when I reached there, I found that it was locked from inside. I started yelling, asking the people who were talking outside to open the door.”

Outside, he ran into a group of young men – about 100 of them. They were attacking a young boy who was from the rival party. He asked one of the group why they were assaulting the young boy. “I boldly asked them, have they beaten you? Has he wronged you? Why are you punishing him for nothing?”

Gitonga has never gone for counselling, but the events he witnessed during that turbulent period of Kenyan history are seared into his memory. “There is a perspective that people have about journalists – we are expected to be courageous and face anything that comes our way. Deep down, we are still human beings,” he said.

‘Bodies were still burning’

For Willy Njiru, an NTV reporter, the gory images he witnessed have stayed with him. He recalls receiving a tip that members of a local community had been burnt inside a house where they had sought refuge. “When I arrived at the scene, the bodies were still burning,” he remembers.

Njiru spends many sleepless nights thinking about what he saw during the fighting. “Every time I go to sleep I just feel gunshots in my head. I fear that any time there might be an attack and police are dispersing a crowd. That, to me, is torture enough.”

Though Njiru sees the violence in 2007 as a stain on Kenya’s history, he says it may have taught the country an important lesson. “I do not think that Kenyans will ever take machetes when they are incited by any politician. The war was lesson enough.”

Njiru has never been for counselling, although he admits it might be a good idea. “I need a good night’s rest. I think I will soon go and look for professional help as it will help me get rid of all these bad images.”

‘The stampede was so big’

Elizabeth Mwihaki was a news reporter with KBC’s Coro FM in 2008. Accompanied by other journalists, she was waiting for an official to address a crowd on the Nairobi-Naivasha highway.

Suddenly, a man got out of a minibus, she recalls. “The man came from the matatu waving his identity card. However, even before he could say anything they started hitting him and he fell on the ground. After a few minutes he was there, dead. I had witnessed life being taken away from somebody,” she said.

During another incident in Naivasha, policemen appeared around a large crowd, shooting live bullets in the air. Mwihaki tripped and fell on top of another person who was lying down.

“I do not know what happened but I broke my leg. All I could hear were bullets being shot from all around. The stampede was so big and people kept stepping on me.”

Eventually her colleagues picked her up and carried her on their shoulders. They then started running away from the crowd.

“They tried so much to run away and we made several stops since I was quite heavy. The crowd kept on moving and due to the stampede we fell several times and were pushed by them. However, we managed to reach the main road and dived on the nearest vehicle which fortunately was on its way to town,” she said.

“I would hate to imagine what would have happened to me had I not been in the company of my colleagues.”

‘I got counselling two years later’

Wanjiru Macharia, then a correspondent with the Daily Nation, was assigned to cover the post-election violence in Nakuru. She went to the city’s main hospital, usually a good source of information on the ongoing attacks.

“On arriving at the hospital, there was fresh blood all over. Some had been cut with machetes, deeply. Others had been stabbed and the knives were still in their bodies. I remember we had to lift our trousers up to prevent them from being soaked in blood.”

She was taken for counselling by her company two years later. She feels, however, that it was too little too late. “I would have wanted to talk about the issue immediately after I came from the field. That would have helped me a lot.”

‘He said I should adopt him’

For Rachael Kibui, another Daily Nation writer, the horrors of the conflict were tied up in her encounter with an eight-year-old boy from Eldoret.

Kibui had gone to get testimonies from internally displaced people on 9 January 2008, at the Nakuru showground, when the boy approached her.

“He told me he had seen several heads lined around a roundabout in Eldoret and one of them was his mother’s. So, because I looked like his mum, I should adopt him and go with him,” she recalls.

“The boy just would not leave me. He cried and cried until I started crying too,.” The boy had not eaten anything, and had no relatives in the camps. “Eventually I had to give him up to the Red Cross team. I cried my heart out. Up to today I still wonder where he ended up. I have tried to trace him with the Red Cross team but to no avail.”

“I intend to start counselling soon. Initially I had thought talking about the problem to fellow journalists would help. For now, I have to start the healing process again and I will see a psychiatrist this year.”

The Guardian.

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