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The Tanzanian soldiers must have moved in very late at night, said Nosisim, a Masai woman, but they were there and primed when she woke. Soon after that, the bullets started to fly.
For two decades in a part of northern Tanzania rich with wildlife, a disagreement has simmered over rights to territory claimed by the Masai but which the government has earmarked for lucrative trophy hunting by Arab princes.
Those tensions exploded into violence in recent days when the security forces arrived in Loliondo under cover of darkness, without prior warning, and began evicting the Masai herders from their ancestral pastures.
Soldiers, game wardens and police officers installed posts to demarcate 540 square miles of indigenous lands near the world famous Serengeti National Park for a new reserve to be operated by a United Arab Emirates-owned company. When the Masai demanded an explanation, clashes erupted.
Dozens of nomadic herders were wounded — shot with bullets, hit with sticks, or choked with tear gas. Many were arrested and have not been seen or heard from since, the Masai claim. One police officer was reportedly killed in the clashes, which sent hundreds of nomadic herders fleeing north across the border into Kenya. Last week The Sunday Times found about 100 of them, mostly women and children, perching on a patch of grass a stone’s throw from the border. All said they had been driven from their lands.
“I feel so much hurt,” said Nosisim, 50, a mother of seven. Behind her, the lush plains she had left stretched for miles. “People were beaten and arrested. We could have perished.”
“I have never seen the government treating its people like this since I was born,” said another eyewitness, 70-year-old elder Olemonjo, who claimed to have been beaten with a stick in his knee and shoulder. “They are all my children,” he said of the dispossessed. “I am pleading for help. I don’t know what to do.”
Although rights groups and the United Nations have accused Tanzania’s government of forced expulsion and displacement, the administration of President Hassan, 62, Africa’s only female leader, insists no one has been forcibly evicted during what it calls a conservation drive to protect wildlife.
But Kileleshon, 38, a herder sheltering in a village near the border, has wounds that undermine that claim, after a bullet tore across his upper back. “I wondered, why is this happening to me, I have no weapon,” he said. “That’s our land, that’s where we grew up.” He had just left hospital with medical bills of 127,000 Kenyan shillings (£880), forcing him to sell ten of his prized cows.
The Masai peoples’ accounts backed up widely circulated video clips of the evictions recorded by activists, which Tanzania’s government has called fake.
The country’s authorities have long allowed pastoral communities to live alongside wildlife within its sweeping national parks, including the Serengeti, a jewel in its crown that welcomes 300,000 visitors each year. However, in recent years the government has embarked on plans to evict an estimated 150,000 Masai living in both the Loliondo wildlife corridor and the Ngorongoro conservation area, a Unesco world heritage site, for the purposes of conservation. Those in Ngorongoro have been offered the chance to relocate 370 miles south, to Handeni.
The government says rapid population growth — of both humans and livestock — is degrading the environment, an argument shared by some conservationists. However, the Masai claim the state is using conservation as an excuse to hand their familial lands to hunting parties comprised of Arab royalty and their well-heeled guests.
Tanzania reportedly first gave the Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC) hunting licences in Masai lands in 1993. Tanzanian lawyers, conservationists and human rights activists say that the company is owned by Dubai royals and was set up to plan hunting excursions for the emirate’s first family. According to local media it has contributed millions of dollars to Tanzania’s security services in exchange for its tourism access.
Princes have been known to fly into a custom-built landing strip in Ngorongoro and hunt eland, buffalo and other wildlife. Masai interviewed by The Sunday Times said they had seen Middle Eastern men “patrol” their lands in the past. In 2016, Tanzania banned wildlife exports after scandals involving rare birds and animals, including giraffes, being flown to collectors in the Gulf from secluded airstrips. An attempt to reverse the ban was scrapped this month, after an outcry from conservationists.
Activists claim that OBC will control commercial hunting in the Loliondo area after the evictions. It has already been accused in the past of pushing for Masai expulsions and building a luxury hotel on ancestral lands. A Twitter page purporting to represent the company but inactive since 2018 locates the headquarters in Arusha, the largest city in northern Tanzania, and describes it as “investors in Loliondo (Game Controlled Area) hunting concession”. It claims to do “sustainable utilisation (hunting)”.
Previous attempts to evict Masai in northern Tanzania, including in 2018, crumbled under international pressure. This time, though, the government has censored local news reports, rounded up those who posted footage of the evictions on social media platforms, and pledged to take action against those who speak up.
“Loliondo has become a police state,” Joseph Oleshangay, a Masai lawyer and human rights activist, said. “No one has been consulted in the process to annex the land. This is the reason why all political leaders are now in detention with trumped up charges.”
Kassim Majaliwa, Tanzania’s prime minister, alleged that villagers had staged a “mock attack”, adding that his government was making note of false reports and would act against those sharing false information.
“Some people started making videos with those who didn’t like seeing game wardens in their village,” Majaliwa said this week. “In truth, there wasn’t any group, either of police or villagers who wanted to harm the other group.”
The Tanzanian High Commission in the UK said the “exercise” of placing beacons near Loliondo “is being carried out under the rule of law and has not sought to forcibly evict any occupant of the area”. It added: “Tanzania is party to several international conventions and protocols with respect to human rights and as such, is not likely to take on any abuse of its people. Indeed, the demarcation of public and protected lands is normal practice that does not merit or justify the negative attention and vilification that it is currently being attributed to the Loliondo exercise.”
However, a team of UN-appointed independent rights experts warned that the evictions “could jeopardise the Masai’s physical and cultural survival . . . and could amount to dispossession, forced eviction and arbitrary displacement prohibited under international law.” The expulsions are the subject of a case pending before the East African Court of Justice in Arusha.
On Friday, a small protest against the Loliondo evictions by Masai in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, was broken up by police using tear gas. Two were arrested.
For the Masai, the land is not only their home, but the bedrock of their pastoral lifestyle. “When we are out of our land we have nothing,” said Kapuru Letura, 41, gazing towards Tanzania’s tree-lined hills. A few metres away, a child hung off the white bollard denoting the Kenya-Tanzania border. “How can we get peace and live in harmony?” he asked. “We don’t have anywhere to run.”
Those that fled across the border are relying on handouts from Kenyans. Their children are unable to go to school.
Kileleshon, the gunshot victim, who has three wives, fears arrest if he returns to Tanzania. He said another Masai man shot at the same time as him was carted off by police. As he spoke, clasping his traditional warrior stick, eight other Tanzanians sitting stoically beside him. Chickens pecked at the ground beside their feet.
With few options left, the Masai say they hope international pressure can be brought to bear on the Tanzanian government.
Then Shinka Tira, a 38-year-old pastoralist, stood up and addressed the hundred-strong crowd. “Let’s stay calm, let’s be hopeful,” he said. “The world is going to know.”