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Survivors and Eyewitnesses Speak out on the horrors of the Wagala Airstrip massacre.

By Mohamed Adow


A day after the Nairobi bomb blast, a pilot flying miraa to Wajir pulled of a stunt of sorts. He landed at the Wagalla Airstrip some 20 kilometres from Wajir town without the aid of even the basic facilities like a windsock on an uneven murram runway. But then, his choices had narrowed down to this-either he risked landing at the facility which has not been used since the early 1980s, or his precious cargo went to waste.


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For security reasons, the military facility in Wajir which he had always used was closed to all civilian aircraft after the Nairobi bomb blast. The only passenger flight to the town was suspended. Now, there is nowhere else in Kenya a military airstrip is open to civilian aircraft.


Sources in Wajir say the Government is currently planning to re-open the Wagalla Air strip to redirect civilian aircraft from the military facility. And here lies the problem. The airstrip is not like just any other.


On February 15, 1984, it was the scene of what could easily be the most bloody massacre in post-Independence Kenya. In what the Government at the time termed as a normal security operation, 57 people were killed according official to figures. But survivors claim 300 people were confirmed dead while more than 1,000 are still missing.


A week after the massacre, the then MP for the area, Mr Ahmed Khalif Mohammed, tabled a list in parliament giving the names of the 300 people reportedly killed. Much as the Government, would want the ghosts of the Wagalla massacre laid to rest, they just won't go away. Plans to reopen the airstrip have brought the memories flooding back and residents say the facility should never be used again. They would rather build a monument for those who perished there.


14 years down the line, survivors, some of whom were traumatised for life, are still nursing their wounds. The best they can hope for is compensation from the Government, but this hope fades with each passing year.


Sources in Wajir trace the build-up to the massacre to clashes between the Ajuran and Degodia clans. At some point, peace was brokered and both clans agreed to surrender arms. But while the Ajurans surrendered the guns, the Degodia did not. Early in February, six people were killed in an attack on Giriftu, "for some reason, it was assumed the bandits were Degodia clansmen. The next day, security men moved in and rounded up all the Degodia men, a woman who lost her two brothers told me in Wajir.


Another eyewitness, Haji Warerra, told me he was arrested on a Friday, February 10. He had just finished his morning prayers when a contingent of police and army men came calling. "I was hurled into the back of a lorry and taken to Wagalla," he said At the Airstrip, he told us that he found many people inside the compound.


"Throughout the day, military lorries drove in from all parts of district bringing in more people. By the end of the day, hundreds of men had been detained behind the chicken-wire fence." Sometime late in the afternoon, he said, they were ordered to strip naked and lie prostrate on the hot murram in the scorching sun. They spent the night in the cold. By Saturday afternoon, Warera realised they would not to be released in a hurry. Some of the people were beaten badly by soldiers in a bid to extract information. "We were now very hungry and thirsty. I saw people drink their own urine. Some weak ones collapsed and died. Those who resisted the order to strip naked were shot outright."


He claims that on Saturday, the security men poured petrol on four people and set them ablaze. That day alone, 10 people died. By the fourth day, says Warrera, there was a pile of dead bodies. On February 14, out of desperation, the "prisoners" attempted to escape. They ran helter -skelter making for the fence. The lucky few managed to climb over but the security men opened fire killing majority of them.


Later in the afternoon, about six lorries drove in to collect the dead bodies and the half dead. They were piled onto the vehicles and taken to the bush where they were left for hyenas. "I was among those whom security men mistook for the dead. "I found myself in Tarbaj." Warerra was rescued by and Italian missionary, Anna Lina Tornelli, who was scouring the bushes in search of survivors.


A few days after the massacre, she was deported by the Government. Today, she reportedly lives in southern Somalia. Nevertheless, she is a household name in Wajir-the heroine who came to help the people in their time of dire need.


The events of the five-day ordeal still haunt Warrera forever. He says he lost sexual desire and suffers hallucinations. "It can happen anywhere. I might be walking and I hear gunfire, screams and the stench of death. I then have to sit until the images clear."


Abdi Sheikh Bahallow was a primary school headmaster at the time, and one of the few who survived. He told me that one Thursday night, security men came to his house twice at night and woke him up. It was only his TSC identification that saved him from arrest. The next morning, he was on his way to school when he was stopped by three soldiers who ordered him identify himself. "I am just a Kenyan, "he retorted. They left him to continue on his way to work. "I noticed that people had assembled in groups in the town while others were being shepherded towards the police station. I decide to follow them to the station to find out what was going on. I was arrested and thrown into a lorry and taken to Wagalla Airstrip where I found many other people.


Like everybody else, he said he was forced to strip naked lie on the hot gravel. It was an experience he forget. February is the hottest month in Wajir with temperatures rising to over 40 Degrees. He had no idea what it was all about and initially he thought it was an all -Somalia issue because the soldiers were taunting them, telling them to call on General Mahmoud Mohammed, then Chief of General Staff to come to their aid.


The school teacher was lucky to escape from the ordeal after two days but not before he had witnessed people being clubbed to death while others were being shot for refusing to strip naked as ordered. " On the evening of the second day, there was an announcement to the effect that all civil servants should move out of the Airstrip.


Some of them had collapsed and never heard the announcement. It was only after we conducted departmental head counts that we discovered that we discovered some people whom we had seen at the Airstrip were missing." When those civil servant left inside realised they were being set free, they made an attempt to move out but they were returned back by the security men and many of them perished. Among them, Bahallow remembers, was Yusuf Mohamed of the Ministry of Health and Ahmed Adan, a driver with the Ministry of Public Works.


Many of the people arrested were never accounted for. Rukia Abdulahi said her two brothers, Abdille Mohamed and Yusuf Jelle are still missing. She says they were arrested on February 10, in the operation in which women and Children were. spared.


Surprisingly, the massacre, which has attracted researchers from as far as Canada, received little media attention locally. It came to the limelight well over a month later when the then area MP. Mr Mohammed, speaking in parliament, accused the then North - Eastern Provincial Administration chiefs of having ordered the killing of 300 people.


Challenged to substantiate by the then Vice - President Mwai Kibaki, the MP produced two photographs of dead people. The following week, he tabled the names of 300 people whom he said had died at the airstrip. Earlier, on February 11 Mr Khalif and legislator A.M. Sheikh (Wajir East) and three Kanu leaders had written to Mr Maalim Mohamed, the then Minister of State, to protest arbitrary rounding up of members of the Degodia clan.


In the letter, they said before the arrests which started on February 10, the authorities in Wajir, had denied the Degodia access to water-holes and their animals had started dying. "On February 10, hundreds of people were arrested and held at the Wagalla Airstrip where they have been continually beaten. By yesterday when we left Wajir, they were still at the airstrip without water and food.


Many people have been killed and we request the appointment of an independent commission to probe the truth." The letter read in part. In a petition to President Moi a few days after the letter to Minister Mohamed, the leaders claimed that February 14, more than 1,000 people had been killed in cold blood. At the time of writing the petition, they said 300 had been confirmed dead. They included civil servants, a former chief and a former MP. "


It is difficult to establish the number of people who died because bodies have been transported to the bushes by the security forces in an effort at a cover-up. The authorities have persistently blocked the efforts of relatives to look for bodies for burial," they said.


For some curious reason, local leaders sought external causes leading to the killings. We strongly believe that the Democratic Republic of Somalia is indirectly involved in the creation of instability in the area," They said.


This was probably an attempt to shift blame from where it belonged. Those being single party days, they knew on which side their bread was buttered.


However, when the Minister of State in charge of Internal Security, the late Mr Justus Ole Tipis have a ministerial statement in Parliament, he steered clear of the possible involvement of Somalia. The minister traced the problems which led to the massacre to an incident in January of that year in which an Ajuran woman was raped by men she identified as Degodia near Eldaas. On February 1 at Khot Khot near Griftu, five camels were stolen and a 19-old boy, Abdille Ali Hassan, abbucted. "On February 3, at Tulla Manyatta, near Griftu, a 50 -year-old Ajuran man, Yusuf Ali Omar, was shot dead, four people were injured and six camels stolen. On February 9, ten Degodia bandits attacked a manyatta at Yakho near Griftu killing six people - a man and five women. Two were injured and two camels killed. The Minister said that after the last incident the District Security Committee with the concurrence of the Provincial Security Committee decided to carry out an operation with the aim of disarming the Degodias and getting the names of the bandits responsible. He said the operation started on Friday morning covering Elben, Dambas, Butehelu Eldas, Griftu and Bulla Jogoo. It involved the Kenya Army, Police and Administration police. 381 male Degodia were arrested and taken to Wagalla Airstrip for interrogation. On February 15, the acting DC addressed a baraza at Wajir to explain to residents what was happening. After the Baraza, and in the company of the district police chief, he visited the Airstrip to view the progress. Part of the crowd started shouting and moving towards them while others tried to escape. Security men open fire and 29 people died.


During the operation security forces met with resistance and 28 people were killed. Total number of those killed was 57, said Mr Tipis.


The current MP for the area which falls in Wajir West, Mr Adan Keynan, says there has been attempt by the Government to play down the issue. "But this is something that will not go away. Those who were maimed are still around. Those who lost the fathers are still with us here, destitute".


The Safina Legislator says the only way to put the Wagalla ghost to rest is for the Government to charge those responsible for the atrocity. "Security men don't just round up people and kill them. Orders must have come from somewhere. The Government has the machinery to bring them to book. We are still waiting to see the perpetrators of the crime in court."




As chief Mohamed Abdullahi of Wagalla in Wajir West spoke to the Sunday Nation at the sun baked dusty village. He was a very angry man. "I am not going to talk about what happened in 1984. Let's talk a bout 1998 . I am ordering you to get out of here and go back in Wajir where you can talk about 1984 as much as you want" In the Kenya administrative hierarchy, Chief Abdullahi is a relatively low-ranking functionary . But he is well-tutored in the art of "tight lips" where issues perceived as sensitive are concerned.


But as he probably discovered, this in one issue he can't wish away. As he was giving me my marching orders, an elderly man interjected. " I was at Wagalla. They broke my back with gun." The chief whirled around to face him and ordered him to leave too. Trying to get information on the 1984 massacre makes one dizzy. Some survivors still fear that retribution from the Government should they talk to the press about their experience. And this is how I got to the chief in the first place.


When I located a survivor in the village, he recoiled with horror when I disclosed my interest. He referred me to the Chief and frantically waved me away. The area councillor too couldn't be brought to comment on the events that took place on the fateful day.


Since 1984, the only time the massacre was publicly acknowledge was during the run up to the first multiparty elections of 1992. Kanu politicians on the campaign trail promised the victims that a trust fund would be established to assist them. But it was all forgotten after the elections.


Wagalla Airstrip is situated on the Wajir - Moyale road. The runway has been newly - murramed in preparation for the reopening. It is surrounded by a high chicken-wire fence. At the gate, a small guard - house has been built.


I walked through the gate with Haji Warerra who survived the five-day ordeal. It was his second time to enter the airstrip. Loudly he shouted Assalamu Alleykum Yaa Ashaabul Wagalla". He says it was his way of giving respects to the dead. Work to rehabilitate the airstrip stated last year but residents and leaders have mixed feelings. " Anybody who seeks to open the airstrip is looking for confrontation. What we want is to build a monument for those who died here," says Social Democratic Party activist Abdi Sheikh.


Mohamed Adow

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