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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

What is the significance of the Wagalla Massacre for us today?

Thirty-three years ago today marks one of our darkest moments in history. On an isolated and abandoned airstrip in a marginalised district, 1,000s of Degodia Somali men were stripped naked, tortured, burnt and killed. Women were sexually violated, raped and killed. Nur Daqane Abdi remembers that time, “Every man was beaten. I stood up three times and asked the police officer to shoot me in the head. He told me I was not worth the Government’s bullets. I didn’t think I would get out of there alive.” He survived those four days. More than 1,000 men and women did not.

Kenya has experienced 2,500 violent conflicts since the Wagalla massacre in 1984. Intense competition for scarce natural resources, poverty and intolerance have driven these conflicts. As we approach the 2017 General Elections, we need to remember every election for the last twenty years has been a potential trigger for displacement, destruction and death. Modern violence is as Kenyan sadly, as the red in our beloved national flag.

To see our past and impending future only through the lens of violence is to miss the full picture. In each one of the 2,500 moments, men and women overcame fear and prejudice to stop the violence. This is the most enduring story of Wagalla for me. Countless men and women like the young muslim nurse Mohamed Elmi, Wajir East Member of Parliament Ahmed Khalif and Italian catholic doctor Annalena Tonelli moved quietly in the shadows to gather pieces of humanity together until it was safe to speak out. They are the primary reason why each year around this time I fast.

Their story is repeated in the personal narratives of Kenyans during post-election violence in 2008. The women of Burnt Forest who hid, fed and protected neighbors from their own families. The teachers who consciously earned the anger of some parents by re-opening schools for all children. Security officers who ignored shoot to kill orders and chose to dialogue with angry communities in Nairobi.

More recently, there are men like Salah Farah who placed themselves in front a bullet meant for a Christian. He chose to give his life than have his religion Islam soiled by violence. Young men and women like Noordin Tube, Maryam Hassan and the 50 Hope walkers who walked from Mandera to Garissa fearing both al Shabaab and the Kenyan army. We can also draw inspiration from those who interrupt violent extremism or expose unlawful police killings in the coast, north eastern and Nairobi.

Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah called them the healers and they can be found globally. They were there in the Rwanda of 1994, Darfur in 2010 and today’s Burundi. The recent film Hacksaw Ridge captures the real story of American soldier Desmond Doss during world war II. Ross was a Seventh-Day Adventist Christian. He willingly joined the army but refused to carry a firearm or any weapon of any kind. Unarmed, he saved over seventy people and became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the US Medal of Honor. His tradition continues with the thousands that gathered recently at America’s airports to protest anti-Islamic immigration policies.

Kenyans, the season that tears us apart is upon us again. We shall have to be brave. Should you see the darkness rise around you, be still. Look carefully for those who quietly move to gather up the pieces of our nation. They walk with those that have healed this nation countless times. Now ancestral, courageous women like Rose Barmasai, Dekha Ibrahim and Doreen Ruto.

Our resilience as a nation rests on what Paul Lederach calls exercising a “moral imagination”. The belief that even one’s enemies are still part of our community is critical for this. We must remain curious in your understanding of them. This is critical to transforming them. Lastly, we all have the power within us to act. Not others, us.

A word of caution for the healers. Stopping violence on top of legitimate grievances and impunity is like an elastoplast on an open wound. It has no real power to remove the divisions that caused the violence. So we must be active against injustice before the violence erupts. Only by building communities around our homes, farms, places of worship and work-spaces will we have the safety and security we all want.

First published Sunday Standard, February 12, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group 


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