Headlines that up to 30 bodies have been retrieved from the River Yala over the last six months is chilling. As investigators, human rights defenders and journalists scramble to understand how they got there, we must also explore our national policy framework and current capacities for forensically investigating the rising cases of enforced disappearances, dumped and unidentified bodies.
The Yala river is one of Kenya’s largest rivers. Sprouting from the Nandi Escarpment, it hurtles 219 kilometres through the Uasin Gishu, Vihiga, Kakamega, Siaya and Kisumu counties before emptying into Lake Victoria. Until this week, most of us probably thought the greatest pollution risk to River Yala was mining, industrial waste, and deforestation. That was until the nation saw visual images of bloated bodies floating in gunny sacks, arms bound with visible signs of torture and suffocation.
I lost a sense of reality for a minute, recalling thousands of bodies that floated along the Kagera River during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and those poor Ugandans who perished under the murderous Idi Amin regime in the 1970s. Could Nam Lolwe, the Dholuo name for Lake Victoria, be on the verge of becoming one large crime scene for the East African region again?
Back to what we know. Locals have told investigators, human rights defenders, and journalists that at least thirty naked and mostly male decomposed bodies have been retrieved from river. Transported and dumped in large double cabin and probox vehicles, the bodies are found neatly wrapped, tied, and weighted in sacks, as if you and I would send a parcel cross-country. Nine human beings have since been buried in a mass grave. The remaining bodies are currently lying in a pathetic state at the Yala Sub-County Hospital mortuary as you read this.
The Police Inspector General’s decision to dispatch a DCI homicide unit and appeal for more information is welcome but not nearly enough. Rising cases of enforced disappearances have fuelled public cynicism that law enforcement agencies are either complicit or just ineffective in protecting Kenyans from murderous criminals. To be dissuade the sceptics, myself included, the DCI homicide team requires forensic specialists in odontology (teeth), anthropology (bones), pathology (cause of death), Government Chemist officials not just photographers and investigators.
The bodies are not so much “unclaimed” as the Police characterised them, but “unidentified”. Each of the bodies deserve a comprehensive Government post-mortem but also by independent pathologists. Their DNA information must be preserved and not buried in mass graves if we are to get to the bottom of what happened and not cover up an inconvenient truth.
The only way to satisfy those now openly blaming military intelligence units, DCI Special Crimes teams and Anti-Terrorism Police Units is to facilitate an independent and unfettered parallel investigation. The Kenya National Commission for Human Rights and Independent Policing Oversight Authority must engage directly now.
As President Kenyatta launches the new DCI Forensic Laboratory in a few weeks’ time, we must ask why we still do not have an impartial coroner service as envisaged in the National Coroners Service Act (2017)? Why has the Attorney General not created an independent facility that serves all justice agencies not just the police? Asking police to investigate cases that may involve police officers is neither helpful to the Service or the public. Or is the intention to keep the lid on what is a growing lawlessness within the service? Why don’t we have a national missing persons database that can capture DNA and other autopsy records?
While we uncover what has happened, can the Yala Bodies saga also be the foundational case for deepening the integrity of our justice system? Unlike world class forensic systems in the Netherlands and elsewhere, our system remains tethered to the most forceful capacity of the Kenyan state. It is time to assign state investigations to an independent forensic agency.
This and finding their killers, might honour the poor departed souls whose bodies showed up this week. We must do better than this darkness for all our sakes.
This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 22 January 2022