News 2007


SLDF militia a force to reckon with


By Amos Kareithi and Isaiah Lucheli

Perched on top of a tree, concealed by the thick foliage, a boy blurts out something only he can understand, with his palms around the mouth. It is hard to tell he is speaking into some gadget. That done, he slithers down the Podo tree. Mission accomplished.

On making contact with the ground, he picks up his herding stick and rejoins his flock as if nothing has happened. But even as he watches over his goats, the boy’s eyes comb the forest, ever alert to any strange movements.

Chebyuk residents flee clash-torn area with whatever they could carry.

As a group of strangers approach, the boy pretends not to notice them, but once they are out of sight, he climbs a nearby tree and sends another message.

He then pockets the gadget he is using to communicate, ensuring no one notices his operations.

Like many others his age, the boy plays dumb if asked for directions. He pretends not to understand a word of Kiswahili or English, although his rapid eye movement betrays him.

He is one of about 35,000 boys who have been recruited as soldiers or scouts for the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), a militia group behind the terror and bloodletting that has turned Mt Elgon District into killing fields.

Ragtag army 

Welcome to Mt Elgon battlegrounds, where the thick forest has invisible ears and eyes. Scouts note and communicate to a phantom command post every entry to the jungle full of elephants.

This seemingly inhabitable forest has become home to what could be Kenya’s only rural based militia.

Combining raw force, technology and superstitious beliefs, what was just a few months ago a loose collection of youths has coalesced into a ragtag army that has the audacity to carry out attacks in an area that has been classified a security operation zone.

Its notoriety is such that the name of its shadowy leader is only spoken in whispers, and nobody seems to know his identity.

Wycliffe Matakwei Kirui Komon, who claims to be the deputy commander, is the face of the militia group, but he won’t reveal who the commander is.

Matakwei, whose posters police have pasted in every trading centre in Mt Elgon District, claims that he commands a following of 35,000 soldiers, whom he refers to as boys.

They carry special charms

According to Matakwei, the boys are being trained deep in the heart of the forest to make them efficient in the use of guns, machetes and other weapons.

The militia has somehow accessed some jungle uniforms, which makes it difficult for victims to differentiate between them and the Government security forces.

"When they raided my place, I could have sworn they were police. They were in jungle uniform and spoke in Kiswahili. They had a chain of command, a figure they referred to as Afande," recalls Peter Kirong, whose three relatives were killed last week.

Kirong recalls that after the attack, the commander of the 12 invaders placed a call and could be heard saying they had accomplished their mission as all houses had been ransacked, and walls sprayed with bullets.

According to police officers who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, the militia group appears to be well organised and they have specific targets.

"Once they raid a place, they divide themselves in groups of 12-20 men. Then they surround the area and strike. They are so confident that they at times send warnings before they strike," says the police officer.

Each of the members is supposed to carry special charms to protect him during an operation.

After surrounding their target, the militia group then blocks all the roads leading to the place as was exemplified during the Kapsokwony raid where the Kaptama/Kapswokony, Kapsokwony/Kimilili and Kapsokwony/Kopsiro roads were all closed.

No weapons surrendered

Some unidentified plant roots were found in the pockets of nearly all the bodies of those killed in the line of duty.

The most recent example is 25-year-old Robert Chemoset, whose body was discovered after the Kapsokwony raid.

Although the police had initially claimed that they had killed the suspected militiaman, a visit to the scene contradicted their account, as there was caked blood where the man had fallen.

It is now believed that Chemoset either died from friendly fire after a bullet hit the wall and ricocheted or his colleagues killed him in cold blood for misleading them.

When SLDF staged its initial attacks last year, the Government dismissed them as a band of gangsters and vowed to rout them out.

Six months later, the Government has changed tact and is now treating the militia group with some measure of caution.

Although the police have plastered the faces of suspected SLDF ringleaders all over the district, describing them as public enemies, the hard line stand has somehow softened.

Politics fuelling violence

The people believed to be the ringleaders of the militia group are Fred Kapodi Chesebe, Nathan Wasama and Matakwei.

Upon learning that the police were looking for him, Kapodi surrendered himself and recorded a statement. He has denounced any involvement with the fighters and blamed his MP, Mr John Serut, for the trouble in the area.

Kapodi, who is eyeing the Mt Elgon parliamentary seat, says the MP is now using the LSDF as a weapon to eliminate his political detractors.

A month ago the Government announced that it would reward any person who volunteered a gun with a sum of Sh10,000.

People who gave information leading to the recovery of a weapon were to be given an unspecified amount of money.

So far no weapon has been surrendered and the elders are under no illusion that any guns would be surrendered or any information volunteered.

"Nobody is willing to risk his life or that of his loved ones by betraying the militiamen. We live in constant fear of retribution," says an elder, who requested anonymity.

The people also fear incurring the wrath of the diviners as this might spell tragedy not only for the sellouts, but also their families.

It is out of this frustration that some security operators have resorted to brutalising suspected SLFD sympathisers who refuse to give information.

"It is so frustrating. You ask somebody for basic information and they keep mum. The terrain is torturous, but these people seem to run up the hills like engines," says a police officer.

At Kapsokwony, survivors say the attackers kept on asking where Lalampaa, a vocal critic of the SLDF activities, was.

"We believe they attacked our place by mistake. Maybe after realising that they had killed children and women against the traditions of the Sabaots, they decided to sacrifice the author of the mistake," says a witness of the recent killings.

The militia group has perfected the use of mobile telephones to carry out its operations although its leaders discard their sim cards as soon as they have used them a few times to avoid being detected.

Sophisticated guerrilla outfit

There have been cases of victims receiving short text messages, popularly known as SMS, from strange numbers warning them they would be eliminated no matter how far they fled.

SLDF leaders are as slippery and mysterious as its operations and people speak of their exploits in sheer terror, as nobody seems to know when they will strike.

Fear of retribution acts as glue to hold the community at ransom, with betrayers and their immediate families always wary of the heavy price they must pay once caught.

Mention the Sabaot Land Defence Force and any resident of Mt Elgon will eye you with suspicion, as mouths suddenly slum shut.

What started as a rag tag army has now evolved into a sophisticated guerrilla outfit, which is sending the Government security forces into desperation, as they chase at the shadows of the invincible enemy.

In-depth investigations by The Standard team deep in Mt Elgon forest came out with facts, which paint a picture of a well-equipped militia group that enjoys the support of the residents.

The outfit is under the command of a man whose only name is given as Matakwei, said to be the deputy commander of the group. The identity of the real commander remains an unsolved riddle.

Guided by the powers of the revered Laibons, variously referred to as Orkoiyots, the soldiers claim they have supernatural powers, which confound their enemies.

When a force of 200 raiders attacked Kapsokwony a week ago, the security agents appeared powerless to act.

A home guard escorts some members of the Ogiek community out of Chepkitale forest in Mt Elgon District. Peace has been elusive in the area following the outbreak of land clashes.

A resident of Chebyuk village in Mt Elgon leaves the area. The violence has affected schools as the institutions seem to be attracting special attention from the attackers. Picture by Peter Ochieng