Isiolo town and the immediately surrounding areas have been suffering repeated bouts of conflict and general insecurity since late last year. More than 40 people have been killed in the last 2 months and while the families of those who have died are devastated the conflict has much wider reaching consequences.
Isiolo is often referred to as ‘cosmopolitan’ not because, as one of my friends suggested, it is full of bistros and trendy wine bars, but because the town and surround area is home to an unusually large number of different tribes. It also is the point at which the agricultural communities to the south meet the pastoralist communities of the north of the country. Here trades, religions, cultural identity and traditions all jostle up together creating a fascinating mix. During the 7 years I’ve known this place all these elements have mingled together remarkably peacefully. It would be a lie to say there was never tension but is has been mild, short lived and not very deadly.
The background to the current violence is unclear, there are probably multiple factors involved (see the previous post – Conflict in Isiolo) but what is certain is that the campaign of fear and intimidation is being stoked along tribal lines, forcing apart cracks in a once well integrated society. Since the current bout of insecurity started the town has become increasingly segmented along tribal, and to some extent religious, lines. Neighbours from different tribes who have lived next to each other through think and thin in the past have separated themselves, those in the minority moving to areas where their tribe is dominant. In only a few months the town has become segregated. This is especially shocking as it is not how the people here are; while tribal identity is important to some, though not all, it is not normally a cause of racist or violent distinction between them. Swahili is the main spoken language here. Tribal languages are generally only used at home but now, as you pass through different parts of town, you’ll hear seven or eight languages. People increasingly only speak with other members of their tribe and then do so furtively in their ‘mother tongue’.
During days of conflict or heightened tension it is not safe for members of certain tribes to pass through areas belonging to certain others. If they do they risk being stoned or lynched as the people (though predominantly young men) of the area vent their fear and frustration on someone perceived to be from the ‘enemy’ tribe. Retaliation for killings or intimidation has resulted in robbery, rape, arson and more arbitrary killings. Arson is particularly used in areas where people have fled their homes in fear of attack. It is chilling to note that the houses are generally looted of all valuable belonging first and then set of fire, suggesting that the crime is not enacted in a moment of passion but planned well enough before hand to organise cars or trucks to collect the looted goods.
The people who are suffering these consequences are not perpetrators of violence; they are almost always families with no connection to the conflict other than happening to be born of one tribe or other. These are normal families struggling to survive in the tough conditions of an underdeveloped country. They may have a few animals or a small field to grow some vegetables. Their children go to poorly equipped schools in the hope of a future better than their parents present.
As each new wave of conflict descends on an area the women and children flee their homes for fear of what will happen to them if they are caught by their attackers. They end up in churches, at sympathetic police posts or squashed into the too small houses of friends and relatives in safer areas. These are not aid camps, there are no facilities for all these extra people in the places they have descended upon. They can only stay for a few days before they are forced to return home, hoping the worst has passed for now. Many go back to find their houses looted or burnt to the ground, losing everything and not knowing how to begin again, but having nothing else to fall back on, no state or organised support.
Nobody in these areas sleeps well these days and combined with the constant stress they are becoming susceptible to illness. Children constantly uprooted are scared, they are often absent from school and when the do attend they are unable to concentrate. Those preparing for important exams have had their future prospects blighted.
To date over 3000 people have been made homeless due to arson attacks. Thousands more are permanently or intermittently displaced and the children of all these families are absent from school for long periods. There is one thing now that is common to all those living in Isiolo, regardless of tribe, religion or culture, and that is the fear and misery that this ongoing conflict has brought to everyone here.