In new documentary, Wagalla Massacre victims recount horror of dark days

Wagalla Massacre victims demonstrate how people were killed in an airstrip in Wajir in 1984. [Photo: The Star]

Wagalla Massacre victims demonstrate how people were killed in an airstrip in Wajir in 1984. [Photo: The Star]

There’s a scene midway through Kenyan filmmaker Judy Kibinge’s documentary “Scarred” about the Wagalla Massacre: Councilor Halima Sheik from Wajir is addressing a group of women at the offices of the Wagalla Trust Foundation who conferred to weigh the impact of the tragedy on their lives. Half way through her talk, Halima breaks into tears and the flow of her conversation comes to a halt.

“Don’t cry,” says one of the women in Somali. Amidst the quiet murmurs of consolation, the woman, her words not captured in the English subtitles, adds, “Continue [Halima], the time for crying is over.”

If anything, it is the singularity of that moment, lost in translation, which epitomizes the frustrations and bitterness surrounding the events of the Wagalla Massacre. Thirty-one years ago, hundreds – possibly thousands – of Somalis were rounded, tortured and killed in an airstrip in Wajir. The truth about what transpired in that airstrip is still mysterious and inconclusive.

What started as an operation in 1984 to disarm members of the ethnic Somali Degodia clan morphed into what the United Nations termed as one of the worst violations of human rights in the history of Kenya. During the large-scale military operation, the Kenyan army carried out systematic attacks, according to witnesses. The army raped women, burned houses, arrested and tortured men, and later on, forced them to lie bare on the ground for days. The heinous violations were of substantial proportions, and victims narrated stories of thirst, starvation and abuse that much of Kenya hasn’t come to terms with in the three decades since.

With Kibinge’s documentary, perhaps the time has come for a serious and sound reflection on the Wagalla Massacre. Titled “Scarred: The Anatomy of a Massacre,” the documentary was launched at the National Museum in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The picture is unique in that it is the first independent visual attempt to chronicle the history of the massacre as experienced by both the victims and survivors – some of whom were government officials themselves.

The interviews weave a dispiriting narrative of government oppression and repression. Like the drop of the Hiroshima bomb or the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, all the victims seem to remember where exactly they were when the normal, quotidian day turned abnormal. But beyond that, a cloud of ambiguity surrounds the events of the days that followed. This is evidenced in the contested number of deaths – Bishar Ismail, the former Chief of Wagalla, says 5,000 were assembled at the airstrip, 3,000 were suspected to have died, but the names of only 365 people are known.

It also took 21 years to file a human rights case in Kenya’s judicial system, and in the end, that time lag between the actual massacre and the laborious efforts to document it fails the Wagalla victims and those appealing for the wheel of justice to take its course.

It is only appropriate here to mention Salah Abdi Sheikh’s book “Blood on the Runway,” which is considered an important addition to the literature regarding the Wagalla Massacre. Salah, who surprisingly is missing from the list of interviewees in this documentary, said that he wrote the book so that it can “spark discussion” about the massacre.

Nevertheless, what the documentary captures in artistic dramaturgy, it fails to build on the larger socio-political and economic discussion concerning the Wagalla Massacre. Wajir, for lack of a better word, is presented as nothing more than the arid geography carpeting its horizons. We don’t get to see how the town, now the capital of the county, has come of age, or how the community, through numerous peace initiatives, has triumphed over tragedy.

In its examination, the documentary maker doesn’t also take to task the Kenyan-Somali political leaders and what role they played in alleviating their own people’s problems since the massacre occurred. Aside from decrying government maltreatment and erecting the Wagalla Memorial, the leaders, some of whose own relatives and siblings were killed, have not shown much zest in assuaging their own people’s socio-economic problems. Besides, the clan and tribal politics that lay at the root cause of Wagalla are still very active in Kenya’s northeastern region, if not more vicious than they were decades ago.

The documentary comes at the backdrop of the 2014 “Operation Usalama Watch,” and the larger debate surrounding the representation and the injustices incurred against Kenya’s ethnic Somali community. Despite the government’s insistence that it was weeding out terrorists, experiences of Kenyan-Somalis, some of them government officials, facing the police and their identity cards confiscated for being “fake,” were all over the news. It was a case of history repeating itself: both as a tragedy and as a farce.

It is hard tackling an issue this subjective and sensitive without coming out of it vanquished. The one-hour film is foreboding, and one gets the sense that the Kenya of 1984 isn’t very different from the Kenya of 2015. Judy Kibinge is daring in how she handles this topic, and in how she encourages her characters to share their side of the story. And that’s what makes “Scarred” what it essentially is: a must-watch narrative about what transpired on those four days in February of 1984.

Updated, Feb. 17 | Filmmaker’s Note:

Thank you so much for this important and review. Just a few responses to some of your comments. Whilst editing, I had to make a difficult choice to make this film purely about memory and include first-hand survivor recounts only. Meaning there were no interviews included from (or about) leaders, and no inclusion of important historians like Salah who was so vital in keeping the history of the massacre alive through his critical book. Salah Abdi Sheikh was indeed interviewed for the documentary but in the end the film, ONLY contained first hand accounts of what happened from the mouth of survivors, with the only exception to this rule being Councilor Halima Sheik as she verbalizes what the women could not themselves succinctly say: and even then, all her words are accompanied by their images and sits surrounded by them, directly involved in the process. There is also no voice-over to introduce anyone who isn’t speaking about a first hand memory, which made including historical experts and leaders difficult. This is in many regards s a huge loss to the film. One of many other glaring other omissions is the important story of the first senator burnt alive on the runway. I feel honoured to have been allowed to have told this story but recognize in many ways I failed as its only (in the end) a small part of a much larger story that must be built upon and added to if the telling of this much larger and far more tragic tale is ever possible. I hope to , at some point, put up a site where many excluded (or even much shortened) interviews can be uploaded for posterity.

Follow Abdi Latif Dahir on Twitter: @Lattif

  • judyk

    Thank you so much for this important and review. Just a few responses to some of your comments. Whilst editing, I had to make a difficult choice to make this film purely about memory and include first-hand survivor recounts only. Meaning there were no interviews included from (or about) leaders, and no inclusion of important historians like Salah who was so vital in keeping the history of the massacre alive through his critical book. Salah Abdi Sheikh was indeed interviewed for the documentary but in the end the film, ONLY contained first hand accounts of what happened from the mouth of survivors, with the only exception to this rule being Councilor Halima Sheik as she verbalizes what the women could not themselves succinctly say: and even then, all her words are accompanied by their images and sits surrounded by them, directly involved in the process. There is also no voice-over to introduce anyone who isn’t speaking about a first hand memory, which made including historical experts and leaders difficult. This is in many regards s a huge loss to the film. One of many other glaring other omissions is the important story of the first senator burnt alive on the runway. I feel honoured to have been allowed to have told this story but recognize in many ways I failed as its only (in the end) a small part of a much larger story that must be built upon and added to if the telling of this much larger and far more tragic tale is ever possible. I hope to , at some point, put up a site where many excluded (or even much shortened) interviews can be uploaded for posterity.

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