Tension between the Borana and Gabra communities in Marsabit District, northern Kenya, has been brewing over the past years with sporadic confrontations that have led to loss of life and property, but few could have predicted the unprecedented bloodshed that resulted on 12 July.
It was as six in the morning, and students at the Torbi Boarding Primary School were quietly going about their normal morning preparation classes. Suddenly, a burst of gunfire disturbed the peace and within a a short space of time, 22 pupils lay dead.
Eleven children managed to scamper away and were brought to Marsabit District Hospital in a critical condition. Today, many more are nursing injuries and are traumatised.
At the same time, at the Torbi Centre, in Maikona, approximately 125 km from Marsabit town, the Borana attackers went on a killing spree using guns and crude weapons. Within two hours the episode was over, 70 people had lost their lives, property had been torched, cattle and animals stolen and 3,000 people displaced. The attackers also visited the Forole and El-Hade areas of Marsabit.
"This conflict is unacceptable and should not be condoned in Kenya," said Abbas Gullet, Secretary General of the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS). "We must step up conflict prevention activities and build bridges so that people coexist peacefully.
The active participation of all community leaders in peace missions is needed. I hope we never see another Torbi in this country," Gullet added.
Many complex and intertwined factors have fuelled the animosity: access to water and pastures, cattle rustling, politics and cross-border interference. Traditionally, women and children would normally not be attacked during these clashes. This was not the case this time.
Subsequent retaliatory attacks between the warring communities have raised the death toll to 90. In total 6,200 people have been displaced. Kenya Red Cross assesses that the situation is still volatile and an escalation of the conflict is possible.
Volunteers report high interethnic tensions in Maikona, Kalacha and North Horr areas of Marsabit where hundreds of people requiring relief assistance have moved to settle at the Administration Police camps. Most people have refused to return to their homes, fearing reprisal attacks.
One of the survivors, speaking from his Marsabit District Hospital bed, described what happened to him: "I saw the attackers coming but I was too confused and could not run fast enough and was attacked. In the melee, I managed to sneak away in a bush and escaped with injuries."
Within 24 hours of the attacks the KRCS was assisting all victims of the conflict by coordinating the airlifting of nine critically wounded people, including children, from Marsabit to Nairobi to receive specialised medical attention.
The interventions were based on a flash assessment, led by the KRCS's Abbas Gullet, which involved national and local authorities including the Kilifi District Commissioner.
"We are saddened and it is a pity that the conflict targeted women and children, and that there was a high loss of life," said Gullet, while coordinating the airlifting of the injured to Nairobi.
"The Red Cross and its partners are confident that the emergency response will be effective and efficient. But to alleviate the suffering of the people we need a longer term involvement," he added.
With stocks of relief articles in place, the KRCS was able to dispatch emergency aid to Marsabit. These included 1,700 bags of maize flour, 80 bags of beans, 12 tons of unimix, 2,250 litres of cooking oil, 600 blankets, 1,200 bars of soap, 300 kitchen sets, 600 jerry cans, assorted medicaments, 30 body bags, 50 stretchers, 300 mattresses and 400 bed sheets.
The aid delivered so far amounts to 2.9 million Kenyan shillings (US$ 39,194 or € 29,000). More relief items were sent on 16 July consisting of 210 bed sheets, 300 mosquito nets, 300 mattresses, 1,440 unimix, 30 body bags and drinking water.
With support from International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), three relief truckloads of assistance were sent to Marsabit.
A KRCS ambulance is being used to ferry injured people from the ongoing conflict spots to the Marsabit District Hospital as the conflict unfolds.
Ten Red Cross volunteers and technical staff have been deployed to monitor the situation and respond with humanitarian assistance. The national society has built up its preparedness and response capacity from challenges and experiences from past operations, such as clashes in Mandera between the Garreh and Murulle communities.
Following the rapid assessment, the KRCS launched a Preliminary Emergency Appeal on 15 July at national level. The appeal is issued through the Rapid Onset Disaster Committee, which brings together authorities, UN agencies and other NGOs as well as the Red Cross. It seeks over 73.3 million Kenya shillings (approximately US$ 970,000 or € 730,000) to support the affected people for six months, as well as to replenish contingency stocks.
Assessments to determine the scope and magnitude of the humanitarian intervention among the affected communities and their immediate needs are ongoing.
The general public and private companies have already started donating. So far cash and in-kind donations worth 6.5 million Kenyan shillings were received against the appeal.
The Kenya Red Cross is working closely with the International Federation and ICRC, who have so far provided technical and logistical support. It is also the co-chair of the Rapid Onset Disaster Committee, which also comprises the Office of the President (Chair), UNICEF, UNDP, WFP, Action Aid, World Vision, CIDRI, the Ministries of Health, Special Programmes and Agriculture, as well as the Meteorological Department.
Two coordination meetings with partners have already been held with further coordination meetings planned as the situation unfolds.
Twice earlier this year - in May and June - the tension between the two communities spilled over into violence and the Red Cross distributed relief items to over 2,000 families that had been affected in the Forole, Ya-Gara, El-Hade and Torbi areas of Marsabit.