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|Nun Who Saw It All And Died With The Story|
Nairobi, February 16, 2004 (The East African Standard) – The death of
a key witness to the Wagalla massacre now means that the horrific
details from an independent source may never come to light.
About four months ago, just as the government promised to unearth what
really happened at the Wagalla airstrip, a lone gunman entered a
300-bed hospital compound in Borama town, Somaliland, and shot dead
60-year-old Italian nun, Dr Annalena Tonelli.
Tonelli, declared a persona non grata in Kenya following the Wagalla
massacre, had for 20 years remained a key witness, but had not
divulged any details of the atrocity and declined any publicity.
Annalena receiving the Fridjof Nanasen Award for her dedication in
working with refugees in Africa.
Aid workers who knew her say she kept the details to herself although
it is known that the trained lawyer had taken lots of details and
recorded events that followed the massacre.
In 1984, after she learnt what had transpired at the Wagalla airstrip,
Tonelli painted a Red Cross symbol on her Toyota and drove to the
field in search of the dead and survivors.
Unknown to many, she contacted the wife of an American diplomat,
Barbara Lefkow, a physiotherapist who also worked with her, and gave
her a list of the dead to smuggle out of Wajir to the international
Would anyone in Kenya have plotted to finish her off and finally erase
any incriminating evidence?
Her killing, however, will not derail efforts to bring to justice the
perpetrators of the Wagalla massacre, said the Truth Be Told Network,
a lobby group campaigning for a judicial inquiry into the massacre.
With Tonelli's killer still at large, speculation is rife within
charitable organizations that the nun was murdered because of her work
among the Somalis.
Surprisingly, Tonelli had willed that she be buried in Wajir, the same
town that she had buried hundreds of the Wagalla victims, prompting
her expulsion by then Internal Security minister, Justus ole Tipis.
As her body was flown to Nairobi's Lee Funeral Home last October,
there was hardly any news about Tonelli's work in Kenya and no
condolences from Government officials. Her name, perhaps like those of
the Wagalla victims, had been forgotten.
Even as the light aircraft carrying her body on Saturday October 11,
2003, left Nairobi's Wilson Airport for Wajir, where Tonelli was
finally interred, there was hardly any ceremony about the event,
including in the media.
Two days later, aid workers attended a church service in Nairobi to
celebrate her life.
"She buried the dead, rescued and treated the survivors. We will
forever be grateful for her work," said Wajir East MP Abdi Mohammed,
as he led North Eastern leaders in mourning the nun.
Far away in America, the Washington Post and Time magazine eulogised
her, but in Kenya her name did not ring a bell for many. Yet, had an
inquiry been conducted on the Wagalla massacre, Dr Tonelli would have
been the star witness.
She was the one who buried the dead in the mass grave inside the Wajir
Catholic Rehabilitation Centre and kept the records. She also gathered
evidence and rescued survivors who had been dumped in the bushes
around Wajir shortly after the February 14 killings at the Wagalla
airstrip, some six kilometers from Wajir town.
But for failing to keep quiet about the issue, Tonelli was in 1985
ordered to leave Kenya in the hope that the ghosts of the Wagalla
massacre would be laid to rest. She crossed the border and entered
Somalia in yet another 'forgotten part of the world' as she called it.
Back in Kenya, Tipis had maintained that only 57 people had died yet
Tonelli, who arrived here in 1969, talked of hundreds.
After she settled in Borama, aid workers say she escaped banditry
attacks, death threats, kidnappings and beatings until the day she was
finally gunned down.
"I still don't know why they killed her," wrote David Brown of the
Washington Post, who had had an opportunity to interview her in
And like in Wajir, she had fought hard against tuberculosis,
illiteracy, blindness, malnutrition and female genital mutilation. In
Borama, she set up a camp for Aids, and was last year voted the
recipient of the Nansen Refugee Award, the top recognition by the UN
High Commissioner for Refugees.
The award, named after Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, is given to
individuals or organisations that have distinguished themselves in
work on behalf of refugees.
That Tonelli never spoke about Wagalla tells much about her: she was
not an activist.
Adecade earlier she had told the Washington Post that she didn't
believe that her life was a sacrifice. "It is an idea that makes me
laugh. I often felt that there was nobody on earth who had such a
privilege to be able to live like this," she said.
Tonelli, the daughter of an economist and the second in a family of
five children, grew up near Bologna in Italy and wanted to spend her
life in Africa.
"My family did not want it. So I took the first chance," she once
Holding diplomas in tropical medicine, community medicine and TB
control, Tonelli had for years remained the one person who could help
unravel the Wagalla mystery. The crime had unfolded before her very
eyes and among a community in which she had set up outreach clinics.
"She wanted the fewest possible barriers between herself and those she
lived and worked with. She chose to be without a name, without the
security of a religious order, without membership of any
organization," says UNICEF consultant Maggie Black.
Even as she received the Nansen Award, Tonelli shied away from
publicity about her work in Kenya and Somalia. "I have always tried to
stay hidden and refused any publicity," she said last June in Geneva.
And with her death, the circumstances surrounding an already clouded
incident only got hazier.
According to Benson Kaaria, who was North Eastern Provincial
Commissioner at the time, many of the key people involved in the
massacre are dead.
Among them was a Major Mdogo, the army officer who commanded the
operation, and the area police boss, a Mr. Namwoso.