Kenya: Government must account for Mt Elgon disappearances - report

world | Oct 27, 2011 | By IRIN 

Human rights activists are calling on the Kenyan government to account for the whereabouts of more than 300 people who disappeared following a land conflict that gripped the western Mount Elgon region and a 2008 military offensive against the militia behind it.

"The government of Kenya has done little to resolve cases of abductions and forced disappearances in Mount Elgon region in western Kenya and has made no effort at all to investigate cases of human rights abuse carried out by both the militia group and the Kenyan Defence Forces and the police," said Neela Ghoshal, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), which released a report on the subject on 27 October in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The report, 'Hold Your Heart': Waiting for Justice in Kenya’s Mt Elgon Region, examines the attempts of families of those forcibly disappeared by the Kenyan army and the rebel Sabaot Land Defence Forces (SLDF) militia to seek truth and justice.

Between 2006 and 2008, the SLDF launched an offensive to stop the government from evicting squatters from Mount Elgon; they attacked and maimed people they suspected of being sympathetic to the government. In 2008, the government launched an operation dubbed "Okoa Maisha" - Kiswahili for "Save Lives" - a military offensive to eradicate the militia; it is estimated more than 1,000 people died at the hands of the SLDF and the Kenyan military.

At a press conference, Philistia Kipteyo, a widowed mother of three, told how she tried to find justice for her husband, who she says was abducted from their home by military officers. At the time of his disappearance, Kipteyo's husband was an assistant chief in the region.

"People in military uniform came to our home at night and took my husband away, saying he was also part of government. They took him to a nearby military camp and when I went to see him, they chased me away," she said. "I have never seen him since but people who saw him last tell me they doubt if he is still alive. I can't get a death certificate for him because the authorities tell me my husband was never buried by me."

Without a death certificate or a burial permit, Kipteyo cannot access her husband's bank accounts or lay claim to any of his properties; she says she is unable to educate her three children.

"All I want is justice to be done," she added.

''It cannot be normal when you have 300 people missing... It is double injustice for the government to ignore the plight of their families''
Only four members of the SLDF have since been charged and convicted of manslaughter as a result of the outlawed organization's activities in western Kenya. Kenya's police and military have denied any involvement in disappearances or deaths during operation Okoa Maisha.

"If the Kenyan government cannot investigate these cases of forced disappearances and provide justice to the victims, then it is up to international organizations, including the ICC, to come in and investigate and prosecute those responsible for these atrocities," said HRW's Ghoshal.

Job Bwonya, executive director of Western Kenya Human Rights Watch, a local NGO working with the survivors of the insurgency, said the lack of action by the government had added insult to injury for the families of the disappeared.

"It cannot be normal when you have 300 people missing; these were people with dependants and some of them even worked for the government," he said. "It is double injustice for the government to ignore the plight of their families."

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