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120 Arrested After Witch Hunting Vigilantes’ Night Of Terror

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Kenyan police arrested 120 people suspected of lynching 11 “witches” on the night of May 20. Villagers told reporters a witches' meeting had been minuted in an exercise book found at Nyamasaria primary school. Among the notes were the names of community members who were next to be bewitched. Bewitchment is thought responsible for illness, disability or death, and even poor performance at school.

The vigilantes compiled a list of the alleged witches that was taken to a public meeting at a village hall. Some of those named were present and are said to have confessed in the hope that the mob would show clemency. The mob burnt the homes of the accused. In Kegogi, Metembe, Nyakeyo, and three other villages, around 50 houses were torched.

Initial reports indicated that 15 people had died in the flames; it was later confirmed that eight women and three men between the ages of 80 and 96 were burned to death. The wife of a local pastor, the Reverend Enoch Obiero, was among the victims.

As many as 300 people from the Sungusunga vigilante group may have been involved. According to The Daily Nation, the raid was named “Operation Okoa Maisha (Operation Save A Life), after the Kenya Army incursion in the Mount Elgon area for the members of the militant Sabaot Land Defence Force.” In the Nyamaiya district, most people are members of the Kisii tribe. It is part of the East African nation's “sorcery belt” where belief in sorcery and witchcraft is deeply woven into the culture.

The investigators initially held little hope of bringing the perpetrators to justice as the villagers refused to identify them – not so much for fear of retribution, but because they supported the action by the vigilantes. In 1993, eight elderly women from Kisii were burnt alive in their homes by a mob in a similar atrocity.

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About Christopher Kimberley