Violence erupted in Kenya after controversial elections in 2008, killing at least 1,400 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Caught in the middle of the fighting were the country’s journalists. They tell NJERI KIMANI what they remember – and what they’d prefer to forget.
At the height of the post-election violence in Kenya, thousands of journalists were delegated to cover hot spots. Most were untrained in war or conflict reporting, and many have yet to recover from the brutal scenes they saw.
‘I stepped on a dead lady’s fingers’
For the award-winning Standard reporter Anthony Gitonga, based in Naivasha, the post-election violence stands out as one of the most difficult stories he has ever had to cover. He remembers being locked inside Naivasha’s district mortuary and having to count dead bodies – a nightmare that he hopes will fade away with time.
Gitonga was on his way to the Naivasha police station for a situation update when he was informed that the then-minister of internal security, George Saitoti, was visiting his area. In the preceding few days, people had been killed and many women had been raped. Gitonga had already witnessed people being hacked to death with machetes.
The violence in the area had begun only two weeks after the presidential results had been announced.
Gitonga was on foot since there was no other means of transport. The roads were full of boulders which had blocked any access to and from town. Any person found driving would also be attacked by rowdy groups, and asked to move from the vehicle and assist in “finishing” other enemies.
On reaching the mortuary, which was on the way to the police station, he crossed paths with a civilian lorry which was bringing bodies into the mortuary. He decided to detour and take several photos before the minister arrived. However, as he was taking photos, he heard a man – a civilian – instruct him to go and count the number of people from a certain community who had been killed. He refused at first, but the civilians pushed him inside the mortuary and told him to take more photos inside the chill room of the mortuary.
“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.”
Gitonga believes they locked him inside because they assumed that he had seen enough bodies and could not be affected any more by their sight. To them, a journalist was a symbol of courage, and that seeing bodies was a common phenomenon for professionals such as Gitonga.
“However, they ignored me deliberately as I knocked and called for help. I was helpless. There was nothing I could do. I just started crying,” said Gitonga.
The bodies were stacked on each other. Some were already rotten, while others were black as they had burnt beyond recognition. Most of the bodies had deep cut wounds, and the majority of them were without clothes. Many of the men were missing their private parts. There were a lot of bodies piled against each other, with some of the children who died thrown carelessly all over the place.”
Eventually, Gitonga found an unlocked door at the other side of the room, and made his way out.
“I have never been able to erase the image of me knocking on the door for help while they laughed and thought that it was funny,” he said.
His own brush with death was when he met a group of young men – about 100 of them – in the street. They were attacking a young boy who was from the rival party. This was in the middle of January 2008. 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?”
Unhappy with his questions, the crowd turned on Gitonga. An angry argument started, and Gitonga feared for his life. Fortunately, a police car arrived to disperse the crowd – just in time.
As they had heard him speak, the agitated group of about one hundred men had turned their anger on him. One of them had identified him as the KTN man, whom they accused of being against their parties. The angry crowd came towards him and as the heated argument started, with the crowd being ready to beat him up. “At least I was able to divert their attention from beating the young boy, who was about 16 years,” he said.
Gitonga has never gone for counselling, but the events he witnessed during that turbulent period of Kenyan history are scarred in his mind. “People never expected us to fear. There is the 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.
‘Their brains were bursting’
For Willy Njiru, an NTV reporter, the gory images of war still give him shivers.
Most prominent among them are the newly burnt bodies he witnessed in a house in the Kabati area in Naivasha – at least 21 of them.
Njiru had received information that members of a certain community had been burnt inside a house where they had sought refuge.
“When I arrived at the scene, the bodies were still burning. There were sparks on the fingernails and the bodies were still smelling freshly burnt. There was a whole pile of women and children near the door, an indication that they were trying to escape. Some of them were only covered with lessos [traditional garments]. In fact, some of their brains were bursting and for some of the huge women, the fat parts of their bodies were still bursting too,” said Njiru.
Njiru spends many sleepless nights thinking about what he saw during the fighting, with the rat-a-tat-tat of bullets providing the soundtrack.
“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.”
Njiru argued that though the violence was cruel and harsh, 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 too 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,” he said.
‘A few minutes later he was there, dead’
Elizabeth Mwihaki, at the time a news reporter with KBC’s Coro FM, remembers watching a man get hacked to death on the Nairobi-Naivasha highway. Mwihaki was on an assignment, and had accompanied the area police as they were trying to calm down a huge crowd.
Accompanied by other journalists, Mwihaki was on one side of the road as she waited for an official to address the crowd, who were armed with machetes and spears. Suddenly, a man got out of a minibus.
“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.
Mwihaki wanted to help the man but she knew that arguing with the charged crowd would only make things worse.
She recalls another incident in Naivasha when policemen suddenly appeared from nowhere 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. I could not stand and I writhed in pain, waiting for my imminent death.”
Eventually her colleagues, four men, picked her up and carried her on their shoulders in turns. 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.
The violence taught her to treasure her friends and colleagues. “I would hate to imagine what would have happened to me had I not been in the company of my colleagues.”
Mwihaki has never undergone any counselling.
“Even the media houses we worked for did not offer me any counselling services. We were sent to the ground to cover the election, and all that was needed were pictures and a story,” she added.
‘There is nothing as horrible as a man gone wild’
Like Willy Njiru, Citizen TV cameraman Karanja Kimani was also despatched to cover the burned bodies in the house in the Kabati area of Naivasha.
“There were more than 21 bodies lying on the ground near the entrance. Every time I recall their bodies, I’m angry that we stooped so low for politicians,” he said.
Karanja’s near miss was when he was filming at a junction on the outskirts of Naivasha. A bus that was ferrying women and children was stopped by armed militia, who started throwing stones at the vehicle.
This irritated the armed police, who started shooting at the people who were throwing the stones.
“They never shot pointing upwards. They were targeting people and I could see bullets flying everywhere, some even missed me. I hid behind a tree as I continued filming the events. However, I was shaking all over,” he added.
However, watching a man being dragged out of a vehicle and slashed to death was by far the most traumatising thing he saw.
“As I watched him lay dead, I could not imagine how low we had stooped as Kenyans. It was then that I knew that there is nothing as horrible as a man gone wild,” said Karanja.
Karanja feels that he would have done something to help, but being a target as a media personality, he could not even reveal his identity.
“I knew that once I revealed my identity, I would become an easy target as they were accusing the media of fuelling the violence.”
‘He still had an arrow in his head’
Wanjiru Macharia, then a correspondent with Daily Nation, was assigned to cover the post-election violence in Nakuru. The city’s main hospital was her best source of information.
“On arriving at the hospital, there was fresh blood all over; oozing from different people who had cuts, from all over the bodies. Some had been cut with machetes, deeply. Others had been stabbed and the knives were still on their bodies. They were just rolling and screaming with pain. I remember we had to lift our trousers up to prevent them from being soaked in blood,” she added.
Wanjiru says the hospitals were full, with the people being forced to sleep on the floor. They lay there, writhing in pain.
“I started interviewing one man. He only uttered two words, and reading the pain on his face, I just broke down and cried. I had to walk away, I never got the interview,” said Wanjiru. The man still had an arrow sticking out of his head.
She say that the man tried to remove the arrow from his head and every time he did so, he would wince in pain.
She and four of her colleagues were sent to cover the violence at Engashura area. However, the local community was not pleased her paper’s coverage, saying that it was giving wrong information to the public.
When they made their first stop, their vehicle was recognised by the postal address written on the side of the vehicle.
“Immediately a gang of about 100 men approached the vehicle. Anger was visible in their eyes. They started yelling, ‘mtatuambia ni mungiki gani imeuwa watu huku!’ [you will tell us which mungiki has killed people here], as the paper had claimed,” she added.
At that point, they were sharpening their machetes on the vehicle. Wanjiru just shook there, wondering what to do. She could not move and all her colleagues were similarly paralysed with fear.
She thought the gang was going to attack and kill them all: “I had moved from being a journalist to a victim now. I now understood the fear that was being felt by the people there and it hurt me to know that there was nothing I could do,” she said.
Eventually, a colleague managed to get through to the mob. “Since he talked in Kikuyu, the group told them that they were lucky they were from that tribe. Otherwise they all would have died.”
During another incident, Wanjiru was forced into another unfamiliar role: that of emergency first aid provider.
“Deep down, we were still human. I remember when we spotted a woman who had machete wounds in the hand and in the chest. We all alighted from the vehicle and we started treating her. We looked for our handkerchiefs which we tied to stop her bleeding. I cleaned her wounds with some clothes and the water that we had carried. I had several painkillers which I gave her to ease her pain. After that, we first took her to hospital before we came back and continued covering the story,” she added.
Wanjiru 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 I came from the field. That would have helped me a lot,” she said.
‘I felt like I was giving my son to dark forces’
And for Rachael Kibui, another Daily Nation writer, the horrors of the conflict were personified by her encounter with an eight-year-old boy from Eldoret.
Kibui had gone to get testimonies from internally displacd people on 9 January, 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,” said Kibui.
The boy told Kibui how his mother’s head had been cut off and then moved to a different destination, where the heads were being counted.
“The boy just would not leave me. He cried and cried until I started crying too. I tried explaining to him that I was not his mother once, but he sat down depressed until I told him that I could be his ‘mother for now’,” she said. The frail boy had not eaten anything. He had no relatives in the camps but he tagged around her for more than four days.
“Eventually I had to give him up to the Red Cross team. I cried my heart out. I felt like I was giving my son to dark forces, to a future of uncertainty. 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.”
Kibui remembers coming across a jumble of dead bodies in the Ponda Mali area in mid-January. The bodies were badly mutilated: men with their genitals stuffed in their mouths, women with bottles in their private parts, and others without hands.
“It was then that I realised that Kenyans are people who cannot think on their own. They base their thinking on policemen who sway them the way they want. It’s such a shame that a Kenyan can fight another person just because he was told to do so,” she said.
Kibui has never undergone counselling despite the fact that the images replay themselves in her mind every time she is alone.
“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 phychiatrist this year.” DM
Njeri Kimani is a journalist based in Nakuru, Kenya
Photo: Orange Democratic Movement supporters set up a burning roadblock along the streets of Eldoret, Kenya as the opposition entered the third day of countrywide protest on 18 January 2008. Police fired tear gas and bullets to disperse thousands of protesters in several Kenyan cities on the third a final day of three days of opposition rallies that reignited post-election violence. EPA/-
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