Authorities should quickly end the man-made crisis in Karonga North West to save vulnerable groups trapped in untold misery.
Ruth Mwantalula, a widow aged over 80, wishes she had a burning urge to run like her grandchildren when her Mwankenja Village was set on fire by attackers allegedly from neighbouring Mwayembe and Mwenitete Villages on November 17.
“I was fast asleep when I heard people shouting: ‘Fire!’ I struggled to wake up, got hold of my stick and headed for the veranda where I saw flames and smoke on rooftops,” she says.
She pauses, grips her walking rod, gasps for air and shakes her head.
It is clear why the wanton burning of 28 houses and looting left ruing her frail flame, tired bones, rheumatic joints and uneasy muscles for failing her when it mattered most.
“My life has not been without problems, but I almost collapsed seeing children burning and looting anyhow.
“I prayed for power to run quickly. But after few steps, I fell down and felt pain in my left leg.”
The first reaction was that she was fractured, but scans at Karonga District Hospital showed it was just a dislocation, says the widow to former Village Head Mwankenja.
The injury may take months to heal due to her advanced age.
She recalled being trampled upon by the arsonists, who are clamouring for fertile half of Mwankenja which used to be Mpata Local Agricultural Scheme between 1972 and 1994.
Her sighs offer a compelling reason for all parties involved in the 20-year-old land dispute to re-examine themselves. Looking at her on Monday, Kyungu rubbed her eyes, saying: “How can anyone be so ruthless to a gogo like this? I will not condone this. We need peace in Karonga.”
So does the grey-haired victim.
“Let’s give peaceful talks a chance,” she says. “Those with power to end this must act now because nobody can sleep peacefully when neighbours go on rampage torching houses.”
District Commissioner (DC) Rosemary Moyo, who was deployed to Karonga in February, says she only knew about the conflict when the tragedy struck.
“There are better ways of solving land disputes. Customary land issues are supposed to be settled by traditional leaders. The matter is in the hands of Kyungu,” said the DC, referring the matter to Paramount Chief Kyungu.
Like the district council, the institution of chieftaincy stands accused of neglecting the 20-year-old scramble for the village split by Karonga-Chitipa tarmac road.
A house is on fire! Kyungu heard his principal aide Mboma say as their car sped past the village in turmoil on the way to Chitipa on the fiery night.
“When I confirmed what had happened, I felt it was such a disgrace and I decided to return to Karonga via a different road in Tunduma, Tanzania,” said Kyungu.
But the chief did not sidestep the village that once. Locals say he has long been skating around the sticky issue, failing to confront it once and for all.
The matter was first reported to Kyungu’s headquarters at Kasoba in 1996 when the scheme ended and its users agreed to revert to their villages, Mwankenjas say.
Kyungu stands accused of not acting decisively since December when Group Village Head Kalambo brought rowdy young men to beat up women, girls and boys in Mwankenja in his presence.
One of the aides, Mboma said: “Kalambo is purely to blame. The meeting was meant for elders only, but he came with the violent boys on the pretext that they wanted to learn cultural and boundary issues.”
Less wonder Kalambo, who wants Mwankenja village vacated and land redistributed, returned early last month to unilaterally share the old scheme side among his nephews from Mwayembe and Mwenitete, survivors say.
Group Village Head (GVH) Mwankenja feels the attackers returned to burn and loot because their first act of defiance went unpunished.
“On November 16, about hundred armed young men marched on the road that split the village telling us to vacate the area or expect hellfire. It was not surprising when they returned at night to burn houses and loot,” he said.
During similar scuffles in Mwalughali and Kasimba, Kyungu threatened he would sack any village head who brought mayhem to Karonga.
He ordered police in-charge Edward Chingaipe not to release Mwenitete and Mwayembe who were arrested for arson along eight suspects.
He said it is sad Kalambo remains intransigent and insubordinate after summoning him twice for peace talks.
“I gave him a long rope,” says Kyungu. “There is a limit to anything elastic.”
While the law of elasticity takes its course, UN Women country director Alice Sheckelfold fears that conflicts and disasters affect women and children hardest.
“This is a wake-up call for Malawi to make peace—because conflicts worsen the plight of children, women, the elderly and people with disabilities.
“There is need for leaders to preach peace all times,” said Sheckelfold after presenting relief items.
For children, going to school is not easy while a part of the society is involved in a suspenseful spat. Pupils fear to go to Mbande Primary School in Mwenitete.
“After the house was destroyed, we were banned from going to school for a week,” says Standard Five learner Andrew Mwaungulu, who only returned to school after police intervened to safeguard pupils’ right to education.
Still, many stay at home. Most of those back in school rush home before knock-off time.
Equally concerned is Elina Nanyondo, widow to late village head Mwankenja who lives with her three children and four grandchildren.
“I am sick and tired of hearing about war. No one is safe here. We all could be killed. I send my grandchildren to school every day, but some stay at home because the conflict lingers on.”
If left unattended, the country will soon wake up to the news of another community displaced in an ugly fashion like about 100 villagers from Traditonal Authority (T/A) Thomas in Thyolo, who spent two years in unsanitary shelter at Bvumbwe after fleeing a chieftaincy wrangle.
Looking back, Mwankenjas say it is surprising the row, partly fuelled by rapid population growth in all villages involved, is refusing to end despite being well-known to police, DC offices and Kyungu’s headquarters.
This is why Emily Binga, a single mother of three children, was never short of questions when Kyungu, DC Moyo, assistant commissioner of police Edward Moyo and other dignitaries visited her ruined house on Tuesday.
“It’s good they came to comfort us, but where were they when Mwenitete and Mwayembe villagers threatened to eliminate us? The conflict would not have gone out of hand if they had intervened earlier,” she said.