Dialoguing with Terrorists

flagbrickWednesday, August 27, 2014, was the date set for 13 leaders of the terrorist group Sabaot Land Defense Force (SLDF) to meet with three lead facilitators from the Friends Church Peace Teams (FCPT): Getry Agizah, Peter Serete, and Erastus Chesondi. They quite rightly were apprehensive and scared. Getry commented, “I was not sure what to expect, but shivers of fear occurred on my body as we approached the date.” What was this deadly conflict about? What did FCPT do for the rebel leaders to ask for this listening session? What came out of this meeting?


At the time of Kenyan independence in 1963, the new government declared that it was improper to still have hunter-gatherers in the new nation. The Ndorobo, a clan of the Sabaot tribe, still lived in the forests at the top of Mount Elgon in western Kenya on the border with Uganda, as they had for centuries. The government took some of the farms formerly owned by the British settlers and allocated two-acre plots to the Ndorobo, forcing them out of the forest to become subsistence farmers. Unfortunately, the land was not allocated fairly, and many well-connected Kenyans ended up with large plots, while the local farmers from the Soy clan of the Sabaot, who were also promised some of these plots, felt that they had been shortchanged in the allocations. This land issue festered for decades with no resolution from the government. Finally, in 2006, the Sabaot Land Defense Force was formed to demand action by armed force.

After interviewing two of the SLDF men, Kathy Ossmann of the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) of the Friends Peace Teams commented, “It was clear listening to their stories that they started the SLDF after they had already exhausted lawful means to regain their land. They seemed to feel that violence was the only method left to get the government to listen to them.” In our peacemaking work in the region, we have learned that listening, talking, and dialoguing frequently keep people from resorting to violence.

The result was devastating to the people on the top of Mount Elgon. Between 600 and 1,000 people were killed, perhaps 500 remained missing, and up to 100,000 were displaced. In 2007 Getry, Gladys Kamonya, and I visited the area as the people were fleeing down the mountain from the violence, carrying only bundles of clothes and belongings. Regardless of the initial reason for the violence, it soon turned into banditry as the SLDF attacked and robbed homes, killed anyone who resisted, mutilated people who were not cooperating with them, and seized young women to be their “wives” (sex slaves). This continued until May 2008 when the Kenyan army arrived in force; killed a significant number of people, including the leader of the SLDF; and imprisoned any of the rebels they captured. Other rebels fled to the Ugandan side of the mountain or to the slums of the nearby cities of Kitale and Eldoret.

Involvement of Friends Church Peace Teams

Beginning in 2007, the Friends Church Peace Teams (Kenya), supported by AGLI of Friends Peace Teams (USA), began running our Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshops. The workshops bring together 20 people from all sides of a conflict to heal from the effects of violence, both individually and as a community, in order to restore normal human relationships. This approach was not easy. After one of our first workshops on the mountain, one of the participants was slashed with a machete by another member of his ethnic group for having met with “the enemy”—he was only slightly wounded. FCPT continued to hold workshops with the people on the mountain. In particular, FCPT did a considerable amount of work to make the 2013 election violence-free among the Mount Elgon constituency. As a result, voter turnout increased considerably from the 2008 to the 2013 elections, and the election was generally peaceful.

Effective work for peace in a community requires a policy of long-term commitment for many years, even decades. FCPT continued to do workshops on the mountain utilizing methods from the Alternatives to Violence Project, transformative mediation, and nonviolent social change campaigns. During a series of four HROC workshops, a Kikuyu businessman was killed and a local radio station reported that SLDF was reorganizing. Five former SLDF members attended one of these workshops, and they were alarmed by the accusations. Getry asked them if she could meet with the remaining SLDF leaders, thinking there was only a small chance that this could happen. Immediately, though, Erastus received a call telling him that the leaders did want to meet with FCPT.

The August 27 meeting

Thirteen of the leaders attended the meeting. Getry reported, “I could see fear in their eyes and their expressions. I felt I was safer than they were and [had] a sense of empathy with the need to understand what happened and what they really wished us to do for them. It took them a long pause to open up and talk.” The FCPT facilitators mostly listened as the rebel leaders poured out their fears and concerns. “As the discussion continued, they went on and on, each wanting to talk, and we only managed to nod our heads and patiently listened.”

Because of the rumor that SLDF was reorganizing, the rebel leaders were concerned that they would be attacked by government police or military again. They totally denied that they were regrouping. Rather they said that they wanted to be reintegrated into the Mount Elgon community, as many of them were still sleeping in the forest. They wanted to be part of the peace and reconciliation work FCPT was doing on Mount Elgon. They requested to be reconciled and trained to live in peace. As they raised this request, there was desperation in the room. One of the members said, “My sister, we live in fear. We don’t know what spirits are after us. We are carrying big loads of pain and emotions in us. We need our community. We really want to be put together with them and start a life.”

The listening session ended after seven and a half hours. The next day the facilitators met with the local government officials to report on the meeting.

Results from the listening session

Clearly the rebels needed the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities workshops, and they promised to arrange for participants to come. FCPT quickly organized four HROC workshops.

One of the rebel commanders who attended a workshop confessed that he had impregnated a girl who was one of his “wives.” The father of the girl wanted to speak with him so Getry arranged a mediation session. At that session the rebel commander admitted he was the father of the child and was willing to take responsibility for the child—a small success but a significant healing response in the context of terrorist groups.

Much more significant was that during these workshops, nine guns were anonymously turned in by placing them in the grass in front of the building where the workshops were held. This act indicated in a concrete fashion that the former rebels were sincere in their desire to be reintegrated into the community.

During the fighting, young boys were often recruited to carry messages, goods, or ammunition to the rebels in the forest. These boys were now older teenagers and a local politician had recruited some of them into a militia group to support him by using intimidation and violence when necessary. Members of the community were worried that this would return violence to the community. They asked FCPT to conduct workshops with them and promised to bring the teenagers to the workshops. The workshops were held and those who attended realized how they were being used and manipulated by the politician and agreed to leave the militia.

We are building a small peace center—one room to hold our workshops plus an office—on a plot of land in the settlement scheme that started this conflict. The walls and roof are set to be completed this month, and we are hoping that the center will be a symbolic yet concrete example of peacebuilding on Mount Elgon. This is a story of Quaker peacemaking at its finest.

David Zarembka

David Zarembka started the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams (USA) in 1998 to partner with African peacemakers. He lives in western Kenya with his wife, Gladys Kamonya. They are members of both Lumakanda Friends Church in Kenya and Bethesda (Md.) Meeting in the United States.

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