Wajir, Kenya — SEVENTEEN months ago, an estimated 1,200 ethnic Somalis living in this Northeast Frontier District (NFD) town died at the hands of Kenyan security forces. In February 1984 -- as part of an operation to crack down on Shiftas , or bandits, as Somali antigovernment tribesmen are known -- the Kenyans rounded up some 5,000 Degodia tribesmen from the Wajir region and brought them to an airstrip outside the town.
There, according to two Kenyan officials, the Muslim tribesmen were forced to strip. When the mullahs (holy men) among them refused, the Kenyan soldiers shot them. Over a five-day period, some 300 captives were killed or died of exposure from being held in the fierce sun without water. Others were hunted down by troops in the surrounding bush.
The incident, believed to have been ordered by the government, was substantially reported by foreign correspondents at the time. Although not allowed to visit the region, they based their information on eyewitness allegations. In the Kenya press, it received scant attention; the reports that did run stuck -- more or less -- to the official version. But the deaths severely disrupted the local infrastructure by forcing thousands of women and children who had lost their menfolk to seek refuge in this dusty
frontier settlement. It also left bitter memories.
Since then, the Nairobi government has sought to smooth relations with its ethnic Somali population. When this correspondent requested special permission to travel through the NFD as part of a recent overland journey to Somalia, the Kenyan authorities seemed anxious to prove that all was now well. Officially, no foreign reporters had been permitted to visit the region until then.
Driving up to Somalia accompanied by two police escorts, my companion and I encountered only hints of animosity among the local nomads.
Returning to Kenya nearly four weeks later, we decided to take a different route -- one that would take us through Wajir. There, it was a somewhat different story.
The road back to Kenya takes us through the ``badlands'' of Somalia, much of it like the bone-dry wastes of Arizona. The road is only partly asphalted.
But you relish the ``good'' stretches until the route deteriorates again into a jolting track of sand. It is a joy to pass through the fertile farms of Afgoi, near the capital, Mogadishu.
Less than 20 miles from the Indian Ocean -- against a backdrop of clouds tinged with pink by distant sand dunes -- coastal rainfall and irrigation have helped transform this area into a resplendent mantle of fruit orchards and fields.
But the scene quickly changes. Low savanna stretches as far as the horizon, broken only by occasional rises of rock or low mountain. There is some cultivation. Farmers living in mud and wattle villages have planted scattered fields of sorghum and corn. There is also the odd town with its worn government buildings and shops. But this is the land of the nomad with his camels, cattle, and goats. You wonder how they survive.
We reach a police checkpoint at a fork in the road just outside Iscia Baidoa. There are no signposts.
``Which way to Lugh?'' I ask in Italian. The guards are lounging in the shade of a wooden hut with a roof made of banana fronds. Many Somalis in the south know at least a smattering of Italian. These understand little, so I try again in English.
One of them smiles and saunters to our Land Rover.
``Lugh?'' I say gesturing with my hand to the left fork, the bigger road. He nods and cheerily waves us on -- on, as it later turns out, to 40 miles in the wrong direction. With no gasoline from here to the Kenya border, it is not the sort of mistake one can afford. But as so often happens in Africa, people who do not understand don't want to disappoint you. They give you the answer they think you want.
Two hours later, dusk already fallen, we draw up at a small settlement. Keorosene lamps glow from each doorway. People are strolling along the road or chatting in front of their houses. I approach a number of men near the small police post. They are party officials. I show them a letter of introduction from the Ministry of Information and National Guidance in Mogadishu.
``Lugh? You've taken the wrong road,'' says one of the party representatives in English, a young man from the capital. ``But it is no good to travel at night. You'd better stay here.''
He insists on taking us to a hotel. ``It is modern, but it is not too expensive,'' he adds hastily, noting my look of puzzlement as I wonder what ``modern'' implies in these parts. The hotel, in fact, is a clean, concrete affair with three rooms at 25 cents per bed. Later, the party representative, who proudly tells us of a visit he once made to British Columbia, joins us for a cup of tea. He has also brought along an armed guard. ``He will protect your car,'' he explains, ``you are guests in our countr y and we want you to leave with a good impression.''
Back on the main road, there are few vehicles because of the gasoline shortage. An occasional bus, jammed to capacity, and relief trucks transporting sacks of grain to the refugee camps at Lugh. We break down with a blown headgasket -- at one of the police checkpoints.
One of the officers takes me to a nearby village in search of a mechanic. We find one, but then it turns out that virtually every truck driver is also a mechanic. We soon have three of them poring over the engine. Every passing Somali also joins in with suggestions or has a go at the motor with a wrench, a screwdriver, or a No. 10 spanner. It is a good way to meet pople and we brew tea by the roadside to keep everyone happy. Nine hours later, the engine is fixed and running.
After three days, we finally make it to the Kenyan border post at Mandera. The contrast between this frontier town and its Somali counterpart of Bulet how, less than 500 yards away is refreshing. The Kenyan trading posts are neat and well-stocked, the streets swept clean, and the houses carefully painted.
The police station itself is a carry-over from the colonial period. A whitewashed fort with turrets in the style of the Khyber Rifles, it is composed of a robust force of disciplined and smartly uniformed Kenyans, mostly from the Lake Victoria region. Evidently, they have been chosen to impress the Somali tribesmen, whom they control not as countrymen, but very much as the colonial British would have: as outsiders. The police also make it clear that they think little of the Somalis, nor do they trust th em.
The police commissioner is decidedly efficient. Without hesitation, he grants us two armed escorts, who will accompany us to Wajir.
The landscape is similar to Somalia. A dry, but spectaular terrain with rolling hills and huge plains of bush. Somali nomads roam here too, right down to Isiolo near Mount Kenya, but there is also considerable wildlife. Antelope, giraffe, and countless dik-diks which -- always in twos and threes -- leap out of the bush like startled rabbits. Near the town of El Wak, some four hours down a washboard highway, we suffer yet another breakdown, caused by a broken water valve. Here the real sentiments between the Kenyans and the Somalis become more apparent.
As the two policemen stand around, I try to repair the damage. A truck comes by loaded with Somali tribesmen. It halts and I ask if they have a mechanic. The police and the driver converse briefly, and the vehicle roars off with the Somalis glaring back at us.
``They have no mechanic,'' explains one of the men. ``They are bad people. We must go.''
``These people are Shiftas,'' he says. ``I don't think they will hurt us,'' I venture, but I begin to doubt whether being with two uniformed Kenyans is a safety precaution.
``They won't,'' the other policeman assures me in a high-pitched voice. ``Even if there are a hundred of them, we can take them,'' he adds with shaky bravado. He scarcely hides his relief when I suggest that we try to limp back to El Wak, some 10 miles up the road.
We spend the night camped outside the police fort with some truck drivers. The policemen stay inside. We give the drivers some tuna and macaroni casserole for which they seem grateful. Next morning they help us repair the vehicle by ingeniously plugging the leak with a whittled piece of wood and making a new seal out of a paper bag.
``We did not help you yesterday,'' remarks one of them, ``because you were with those policemen. We don't like those people.''
In Wajir, similar feelings are expressed. The flag of Kenya flaps peaceably over the main police station, but the killings have yet to be forgotten.