A few monuments in Kenya represent a past that never makes sense. It is, perhaps, this air of mystery surrounding them that makes them fascinating. One of these is the Wagalla Massacre Monument. On the day I visited, nearly 20 years after the event had happened on February 10, 1984, Wajir town was unusually hot and quiet.
I had come here officially as part of a team from the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) before it changed its name to Practical Action. Unofficially, an undying curiosity to see and step on the supposedly cursed grounds of the Wagalla massacre edged me towards the Wagalla Airstrip.
A gale of wind was blowing through the deserted airstrip, making an eerie groan that almost sounded like the mourning of a horde of tormented spirits crying out in unison for help. Such was the aura at the Wagalla massacre site.
It was on that fateful day that thousands of Degodia Somalis would be killed in cold blood in a government operation that was described by the United Nations as, “the worst human rights violation in Kenyan history.”
No one seems to know how an otherwise innocent government operation turned this brutal and violent. More than 30 years down the line, memories of that fateful day, when an elite force of Kenyan troops descended on the area to supposedly help defuse clan-related conflict, remain etched in the minds of the Somali of Wajir to this day.
Varying eyewitness accounts tell how the exercise quickly degenerated into a blood bath. Some say the death toll at the site was only 57 while others insist it went up to 5,000. There are those who even give figures that are unthinkable – 10,000!
Many believe a single Somali dominant clan, the Degodia, who had been accused of frequent attacks against their Adjuran neighbours, was targeted. The men, some government officials, were rounded up and then taken to the Wagalla airstrip where they were stripped naked and forced to lie down in the scorching northeastern heat without water and food for 5 days before some were methodically executed.
Salah Abdi Sheikh’s book, ‘Blood on the Runway‘ provides the earliest and most detailed account of the massacre. You can get a copy on Google Books if you are keen to read more on the topic.
Interestingly, the Wagalla massacre was never recognised as one until much later when an enquiry by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) revealed the scale of the operation and the brains behind it. The TJRC was set up to respond to the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya.
In February 2015, a documentary titled ‘Scarred: The Anatomy of a Massacre’, directed by Judy Kibinge was released at the Nairobi National Museum. The film was the first independent visual attempt to chronicle the history of the Wagalla massacre as experienced by the survivors. You can watch the official trailer below.
The airstrip to this day remains abandoned like a badly healed scar to a deadly wound. When the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights finally decided to honour the day with a monument, it was strangely erected in Wajir town and not the massacre site.
The monument, a semi-circular wall with the engravings of the names of some of the known victims, has become a tourist attraction, pulling lovers of history and those simply wishing to pay their respects alike to its location at the Korahey grounds. When you are in Wajir, stop by at the Wagalla Massacre monument, if only to honour the Kenyans who lost their lives in this strange event.