The headlines that up to 30 bodies have been recovered from the Yala River in the past six months are chilling. As investigators, human rights defenders and journalists struggle to understand how they got there, we must also explore our national policy framework and current capacities to forensic investigation into the growing cases of enforced disappearances. , abandoned and unidentified bodies.
The Yala River is one of the largest rivers in Kenya. Starting from the Nandi escarpment, it descends 219 kilometers through the counties of Uasin Gishu, Vihiga, Kakamega, Siaya and Kisumu before emptying into Lake Victoria. Until this week, most of us probably thought that the biggest pollution risk to the Yala River was mining, industrial waste and deforestation.
That was until the nation saw visual images of bloated bodies floating in burlap sacks with their arms tied with visible signs of torture and suffocation.
I lost touch with reality for a minute, remembering the thousands of bodies that floated down the Kagera River during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and those poor Ugandans who perished under the murderous regime of Idi Amin in the 1970s. Could Nam Lolwe, the Dholuo name for Lake Victoria, be about to once again become a major crime scene for the East African region?
Back to what we know. Residents told investigators, human rights defenders and journalists that at least 30 naked, mostly male decomposed bodies had been recovered from the river. Transported and dumped in large double-cab and probox vehicles, the bodies are found neatly wrapped, tied and weighed in sacks, as if you and I were sending a package across the country.
Nine human beings have since been buried in a mass grave. The remaining bodies currently lie in a pathetic condition at Yala Sub-County Hospital Mortuary as you read this.
The Inspector General of Police’s decision to send in a DCI Homicide Unit and appeal for more information is welcome, but not enough. The rise in cases of enforced disappearances has fueled public cynicism that law enforcement is either complicit or simply ineffective in protecting Kenyans from murderous criminals.
To deter skeptics, myself included, the DCI Homicide Squad needs forensic specialists in odontology (teeth), anthropology (bone), pathology (cause of death), government officials chemist, not only photographers and investigators.
The bodies are not so much “unclaimed” as the police called them, but “unidentified”. Each of the bodies deserves a full government post-mortem, but also by independent pathologists. Their DNA information must be preserved and not buried in mass graves if we are to shed light on what happened and not hide an inconvenient truth.
The only way to satisfy those who now openly blame military intelligence units, DCI special crimes teams and counter-terrorism police units is to facilitate an independent and unfettered parallel investigation. The Kenya National Human Rights Commission and the Independent Police Oversight Authority must engage directly now.
As President Kenyatta launches the new DCI Forensic Laboratory in a few weeks, we must ask ourselves why we still do not have an impartial coroner’s service as provided for in the National Coroner’s Service Act (2017)?
Why hasn’t the Attorney General created an independent facility that serves all judicial agencies and not just the police? Asking the police to investigate cases that may involve police officers does not help the Service or the public. Or is the intention to keep the lid on what is a growing anarchy within the service?
Why don’t we have a national missing persons database that can capture DNA and other autopsy records?
As we uncover what happened, can the #YalaBodies saga also be the foundational case for furthering the integrity of our criminal justice system?
Unlike world-class forensic systems in the Netherlands and elsewhere, our system remains committed to the strongest capacity of the Kenyan state. It’s time to turn the state’s investigations over to an independent forensic agency.
This and the discovery of their killers could honor the poor deceased souls whose bodies have emerged this week. We must do better than this darkness for the good of all of us.