It was the oppressive regime of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi that led to the establishment of Mwatikho Torture Survivors’ Organization (MATESO) in 1995. As president, Moi was responsible for the torture, death and disappearance of thousands of people who were considered supporters of the opposition.
While many people were tortured in the notorious Nyayo House torture chambers in the heart of Nairobi, the president’s crackdown went far beyond the country’s capital. One of the places affected by the violence was the town of Bungoma near the Ugandan border.
“The international community realised there was a problem in Kenya and they came to the country through Amnesty International to look for victims of torture. They identified Bungoma as an area with many victims and that’s why MATESO was founded there,” explains Taiga Job Wanyanja, centre coordinator of MATESO.
Taiga was one of the centre’s founders. He saw firsthand how people who had been subjected to unthinkable atrocities were in urgent need of help. At the time, torture victims in Kenya had nowhere to go to receive rehabilitation. There was a group of international doctors who came to the country to help rehabilitate the victims. This led to the foundation of MATESO.
“Back then we didn’t even know about rehabilitation so we started borrowing approaches from other countries on how to rehabilitate. Victims wanted medication, they wanted psychosocial support and counselling because of the kind of torture they had been through, which was horrific,” recalls Taiga.
According to those who survived, the regime used a repertoire of gruesome torture methods including electric wires, beatings, falanga and sexual abuse.
“People were victims of government perpetrators and other state agents who were trained by the police to carry out the crackdown. They used torture methods to suppress those not supporting Moi’s regime.”
Only a few years after Moi resigned in 2002, Bungoma saw the rise of a guerrilla militia group called Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF). The separatist group, which soon became very powerful, began to implement a parallel administration system and set up an unofficial taxation of local residents. The group was accused of killing more than 1,000 people, and of committing various atrocities including murder, torture and rape. In the course of 18 months, over 66,000 people were displaced because of SLDF.
“I think the government somehow relaxed and allowed this group to become a very serious force. It set up kangaroo courts, set up torture chambers, it initiated its own taxation system, carried out abductions and forced disappearances. In fact over 1,000 people were killed during that period,” says Taiga.
Along with other human rights defenders in the country, Taiga suddenly found himself as a target of the militia and as the situation deteriorated, the less safe he was. At this point, the government had finally deployed the military to crack down on SLDF, but it was using similar techniques as the group and began targeting citizens who were not part of SLDF. According to Taiga, the government was even using the same system of disappearances, torture and arrests as SLDF and when he and other human rights defenders voiced their concern about this, the military came after them as well.
It was clear that his life was at risk and he had no other choice than flee to Uganda, leaving behind his family.
“I had to leave my family behind in Kenya. I had five children and my wife who I left behind. They were also being threatened and had to move to another place.
“After a year I came back to find that the military had crushed the militia group and their illegal activities. The military had caused a lot of damage to the entire community of the western region of Kenya. More than one million people had been affected and the entire community of that region was suffering from PTSD.”
Today, MATESO continues to treat victims of the former governments and SLDF with entire communities suffering from the effects of torture. Each year, MATESO staff, consisting of 15 full-time or part-time counsellors, psychiatrists, medical doctors, nurses and lawyers, provide services to 1,000 torture survivors. But while many of them are victims of past violations, MATESO also support victims of ongoing police brutality.
Taiga tells us about a recent episode that took place in a small village. The police beat up a group of people and raped the women, but despite the public outcry that followed, the perpetrators were not brought to justice. In fact, when the victims tried to report the attacks, they found themselves reporting to the perpetrating police officers. A stark reminder that impunity is still widespread in Kenya.
The high level of impunity is particularly evident to Taiga who continues to be a target for threats and acts of harassment. As a result, he has to take his precautions when addressing a human rights issue in public or simply try to avoid confronting the government over an issue to do with torture. Yet, he continues to treat torture victims, who, had it not been for him and MATESO, would not be able to access rehabilitation services.
“I am also a victim and I know that the healing process is a long process. Victims need a lot of help. They require a long-term process to heal in my experience. After some time and after intervention I have seen people recover and really appreciate the psychosocial support we have given them. We have many survivors who have told us we have made a difference in their life. Most people cannot afford the services they need so through our intervention they feel they are at ease with life now because they can get the care they need.”
MATESO is a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). To find out more, please visit the MATESO website.