Life in the killing fields: An untamed mix of bandits, guns, cattle and culture

They are armed and dangerous and operate in isolated zones in full contempt of the law and repeated multi-agency security operations to smoke them from their hideouts have proved fruitless.

The criminal rings are known to stage well-calculated attacks and often devise new tactics to subdue their challengers in their merciless undertakings that often result in loss of property, displacement and killings.

Welcome to the world of bandits, who killed eight police officers, a chief and two civilians last week in Turkana and continue to wreak havoc in the region.

Security officers and police reservists who have encountered the gun-wielding bandits say they are experienced in combat.

A majority of them are groomed for this from a tender age and are progressively trained in how to defend themselves, graduating to take part in raids at an average age of 15 years.

“They are separated from their mothers when they are as young as seven years and taken to herding camps where they are subjected to hardships. To survive in such conditions, the boys must learn survival skills. They have to be sharp and hardy,” disclosed Joseph Chesang, a former National Police Reservist (NPR) from the porous Kesumet in Baringo North that has witnessed numerous cattle rustling and banditry attacks.

The criminals, he explained, are armed with sophisticated weapons including AK-47 and G3 rifles and expertly hide bullets on their way to staging attacks.

“These criminals are normally illiterate people. Though children in that community get exposed to guns at a young age, they have some other skills when fighting that make us suspect that these people get extra training,” said Mr Chesang.

He claimed that they have been ambushed many times by bandits as young as 12 who seem conversant with sophisticated firearms.

“Though they are young, they can fight with security officers the whole day without getting tired or running out of ammunition. Some of them even fight when naked to camouflage with the rocky terrain and not to be trapped by the thorny shrubs,” said an officer who preferred anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Intelligence reports

He revealed that the said bandits get intelligence reports warning them of pending operations.

“The rugged terrain gives the bandits an upper hand,” said the informer.

Mr Jackson Chemjor, another reservist who has served for seven years in the volatile Chemoe border in Baringo North, said the bandits, who invade an area in numbers, are well armed.

“Because they walk for long distances, they carry sugar, water and soaked maize on their backs to rekindle their energy. With such a consignment, they will never get tired as they rejuvenate their energy by taking the sugar,” said Mr Chemjor.

“They know how to handle all sophisticated firearms despite them being illiterate. The way they take cover and lay ambushes is a clear indication that they are coached by skilled people,” he added.

Sometimes, the attackers destroy communication masts to foil the plans of security officers deployed in the area and also to stop locals from raising distress calls in case of an attack.

Colonel (Rtd) Moses Kwonyike, told Newszetu that the prowess exhibited by the bandits may be due to training provided by retired and serving security personnel still serving.

“In the early 1990s, there was mass recruitment of (one community) to the military as an affirmative action,” said Col Kwonyike.

“Most of them retired from the army with combat tactics from the military. When they went home, they became the instructors of those bandits in the bush. The expertise the criminals are employing is gained from the retired soldiers,” he added.

The government has launched several failed operations in the region in the past and is set to embark on a similar exercise following last week’s killings.

But the rough geographical terrain has proved to be the main challenge to the multi-agency security team involved in the crackdown of the criminals who take cover in caves in Silale, Nadome, Suguta Marmar and Tiaty hills.

According to locals, the reservists who are well versed with the local geographical terrain especially Tiaty, Kapedo are lacking, with only military and General Service Unit (GSU) camps set up to respond to attacks.

“Unlike in other areas where the locals are recruited as NPR to back up national security team, there no such arrangement in Kapedo to guide the military and GSU officers on paths used by bandits and manoeuver the rough terrain exposing them to great danger,” said Mr Brian Chetotum, another resident.

Some of the bandits who stage daring attacks on the border of Baringo and Turkana counties escape using the notorious Lokwachula “corridor” towards West Pokot County and end up in Uganda where they take refuge and only return after the government releases the lever on disarmament operations.

Some of the involved communities are spread out between Kenya and Uganda and they move freely across the two countries in search of pasture and water for their livestock.

According to local leaders, homegrown solutions will yield the much-needed peace in the banditry-prone counties in the North Rift.

Economic empowerment

They want pastoralists to be empowered economically for them to discard retrogressive cultural practices, noting that disarmament in the hotspots will not end banditry.

Rift Valley Regional Coordinator Maalim Mohamed said a security operation is ongoing to flush out the bandits and help restore law and order in the volatile region.

“We are going for the criminals and make them pay for their acts of cowardice,” said Mr Maalim while assuring the residents of their security following last week’s killings.

Among those killed during the attack is Mary Ekai Kanyaman a peace crusader who had mobilised security officers from Lokori to recover her livestock that had been stolen by bandits during a raid that left one person dead and another injured.

Col Kwonyike said rustlers normally sleep outside, mostly on river beds or cow sheds from a very tender age so that they can be privy to what is going on in their surroundings, and that they can subdue their perceived enemies before they ambush them.

“The checks done by the rustlers at dawn are part of the morning briefs expected to be given to the elders during a public gathering, kokwo,” said (Rtd) Kwonyike.

The rustlers normally have ranks and those who kill have some markings on their bodies that show the number of their victims.

“The more cuttings you have, the more you are glorified. They are termed as generals and these are some of the indications sustaining the age-old practice,” said the retired soldier.

According to Mr Julius Akeno, an author and resident of Tiaty, young boys as young as eight are given the responsibility of taking livestock to distant places for a long period of time.

A section of Mr Akeno’s book, Patrons of Wild Suguta Valley, says: “At a tender age, boys were separated from their mothers and were not allowed to sleep in their mothers’ huts. Their place is aperit, an open fireplace in the compound. They were trained to be alert always, even when asleep. They were told to sleep with their eyes closed but ears opened. No one should walk in unheard and find them asleep. It would be a mistake punishable by several lashes of the cane. The rough handling of young boys will make them hardy to prepare them for a tough life ahead.”

The cattle rustlers are always alert, hardy and always suspicious of their educated peers, who view them as spies of the government. Hence, they don’t share a lot with them.

“It is very difficult to single out the bandits and most of them mingle freely with the people. This helps them act as spies for their counterparts in the bush,” said Mr Akeno.

Those who mingle with the locals are friendly and they do so to gather information on details like impending operations by the government.

“This type of group participates in communal work including attending kokwo, a community gathering to discuss issues affecting the locals. This is where they gather information … then relay the information to their counterparts in the bush,” he noted.

Lokis Location Chief Johnston Long’iro said that despite efforts to disarm locals in the volatile areas, they are also putting their lives at risk because they are hunting for individuals who are armed to the teeth.

He said most of the criminals normally flee the area when they get wind of a looming disarmament exercise, negating efforts to track them as some flee to neighbouring counties such as West Pokot, Samburu, Laikipia and Turkana.

“In most cases, when the bandits get information of a planned security operation to disarm them, they flee the villages and go far away to the neighbouring counties and countries such as Uganda. Tracking such characters is no joke,” said the chief.

A chief from Kerio Valley, who sought anonymity, claimed that though they sometimes get the names of those behind the spate of banditry and livestock theft in the volatile areas, the suspects flee to other areas and change their names completely.

“Most of the armed criminals have no identification cards and they purposely do so to hide from the authorities just in case their crimes are known. The few who have IDs flee to remote areas where they cannot be tracked and they change their names,” said the chief.

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