NAIROBI // The Kenyan government has detained, tortured and killed hundreds of people during a five-month battle with a militia group in western Kenya, a leading human rights watchdog said yesterday. In its report, All the Men Have Gone, Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed war crimes committed in the Mount Elgon region near Kenya's border with Uganda. The New York-based organisation said the government should be held accountable for its actions.
"The 'successful' operation to tackle the rebellion in Mount Elgon has come at a terrible cost," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at HRW. "The government should urgently produce those who have disappeared and ensure that those responsible for torture and other crimes, including the commanders, are held accountable." A joint Kenyan army and police force launched an operation in March to root out the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), a militia group that has been fighting the government over its attempts to evict squatters from the region.
Although initially welcomed by the local population, the government-backed security force proceeded to detain and torture hundreds of men and boys. Western Kenya Human Rights Watch (WKHRW), a rights organisation not affiliated to HRW, has documented more than 40 people who were detained by the police and are now "missing". "To date, those people have never been found," said Job Bwonya, executive director of WKHRW. "Many people were tortured. Many people were killed. Yesterday six bodies were found."
The clan-based SLDF militia has been fighting other clans for land and extorting money from villagers since 2006. The violence against civilians in the Mount Elgon region by the SLDF, including rape, torture, and the seizure of property, has left more than 600 people dead, according to rights organisations. Some of the militia fighters have crossed the border into Uganda. The Ugandan army said last week it had handed over at least 21 SLDF fugitive fighters to Kenya.
The Kenyan government has denied accusations of torture and has launched an internal investigation into the allegations. Rights organisations called for an independent inquiry. "The military is one of the torturers, so we cannot say that the military can investigate," said Taiga Wanyanja, the head of Mwatikho Torture Survivors Organisation. "We need an independent commission to investigate." Ben Rawlence, a Kenya researcher for HRW, said most of the government abuses were carried out in March and April. The situation in the region is calm at the moment, he added.
"It seems as though the mass detentions and torture are not part of the strategy anymore," Mr Rawlence said. "We hope to show that such a strategy is very concerning." Humanitarian organisations and journalists have been barred from operating in the region. Last week, Doctors Without Borders (known by its French abbreviation MSF), an emergency medical aid organisation, said the government of Kenya had blocked its operations in the Mount Elgon region.
"Since June 27, we are not allowed from our base to go to any of the locations where we have been running mobile clinics," said David Michalski, MSF's co-ordinator for operations in Kenya. "Hampering relief agencies from working, whether during conflict or periods of instability, are serious acts prohibited under the Geneva Conventions." Mr Michalski said MSF was "calling on the authorities to meet with us and lift the current restrictions so that we can continue providing humanitarian aid to the people of Mount Elgon as we have always done in a neutral and impartial manner".
The Kenyan government said the organisation was being blocked because of the sensitive security situation in the region. "At one point or another, a certain class of people will be blocked from accessing certain areas of Mount Elgon," said Eric Kiraithe, a police spokesman. "We are doing this because of security to everybody, and we believe that there are guns in the wrong hands." The clashes in the Mount Elgon region are indirectly related to political violence that gripped Kenya at the beginning of the year. Rival tribes attacked each other after Mwai Kibaki, the president, was sworn in for another five-year term. The opposition party dismissed the poll as flawed.
The rival sides formed a coalition government in March ending the violence, but analysts say there are still underlying issues left to be resolved. A sense of injustice over land fuelled the post-election violence and is the reason the militia group is fighting in the west of the country. Many Kenyans blame politicians for the land inequity. Since independence in 1963, Kenyan leaders have given land to members of their own tribe.