MADE IN BOSNIA

'They are not soldiers like we are. They kill children like dogs' 'They are not soldiers like we are. They kill children like dogs'

For centuries, Kenya's Samburu warriors enjoyed a simple, harsh,

unchanging existence. Then some of them went to former Yugoslavia,

and found wealth - and savagery - beyond their wildest dreams

IT'S SATURDAY morning in Bara-goi, 400 miles north of Nairobi on the El Barta plains, as good a day as any for a Samburu warrior to come to town. And come they do, in large numbers, decked out in their finery of beads, feathers and ivory earplugs, trekking 10, 20, even 30 miles from their mud and dung huts across the pale grasslands to lean casually on their spears and watch the world go by from the colonial-style verandas that front the shops.

It may look like a timeless ritual, but this tiny town deep in the Rift Valley has changed in the past year, its sleepy frontier face revamped by commerce. Once, the main street made its way straight on to the police post and the District Officer's compound. Now, it turns into a dirt road lined with one-storey cinder-block buildings and other evidence of a construction boom: shops, hotels that serve potato stew and slabs of roasted goat meat, malodging dosshouses where it costs pounds 1 to spend the night on a rickety wooden bed, and bars - like the Bosnia Wine and Spirits, where Rosemary Benzina, a fat, jovial woman in a flimsy white dress, is slapping beer, vodka and Coca-Cola on to the counter for her regulars.

It's the bar's name, executed with a steady hand on the fresh paint of its exterior, that explains the surge in Baragoi's economy; that and the fact that the strip is known locally as Yugoslavia Street. Benzina's boss, like the owners of almost all the other new businesses in town, is a veteran of the conflict in the former Yugo-slavia and, like his colleagues, he's done well out of the war.

Like other Third World countries, Kenya has found hiring out its army to the UN a useful way of getting foreign exchange. For contributing a battalion for peacekeeping activities in a war zone, the government receives some pounds 1.2m per month (roughly pounds 1,400 per man). Kenyan military and police have served as UN observers in Cambodia, Nam-ibia, Liberia and the Western Sahara. But nowhere has the Kenyan army been more active than in Croatia and Bosnia, where its first 900-man battalion was despatched in May 1992. Its task, and that of its two successors, was to patrol for a year the southern end of the ceasefire line that provided a cordon sanitaire around Krajina, the self-proclaimed Serbian republic in eastern Croatia which has since been dissolved.

News of these missions prompted a rush among Samburu men to enlist in the army, a move encouraged by its then chief of staff, Major-General Lekerde Lenges. A Samburu himself, born in a mud hut not far from Baragoi, he knew that the Samburu are natural warriors, hardened by life in a harsh, elemental word. Most adult Samburu males have killed a lion, elephant or buffalo with a spear, and the political world they inhabit is menacing too: recently, they and the Home Guard civil militia have had to defend their homesteads against Somali, Pokot and Turkana armed bandits. Neighbouring civil wars - Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi - have flooded the region with cheap assault weapons. As in the former Yugoslavia, everyone knows someone who has been killed.

Even more importantly, opportunities to earn money are hard to come by. Essentially cattle-herders, most Samburu live on the margins of the cash economy, surviving on just a few hundred pounds a year. A private in the Kenyan army does little better: about pounds 55 a month. But a private in the Kenya army chosen to act as a buffer between the warring Croats and Serbs could find himself earning around pounds 800 a month. No wonder such postings were seen by the Sam-buru as tantamount to winning the National Lottery.

DAVID LOLPIRDAI is a case in point. A UN veteran in his early twenties, he has never been to school, does not speak English and was just another warrior on the poverty line before joining up. Today, in the sleepy hamlet of Lesirikan, which is a four-hour walk from Baragoi, he is "a big man", a member of the new entrepreneurial class, a man who owns real estate.

In fact, his is one of nearly 20 buildings that have sprung up along Les-irikan's very own Yugoslavia Street, thus more than doubling the size of the town. He has invested his UN earnings in a small shop with four back rooms which he will let as accommodation. Like the other merchants of Yugoslavia Street, he will be catering for a semi-nomadic population with modest purchasing power; his goods will include sandals made from car tyres and individually wrapped aspirins. Next door to his emporium is the one-room Bosnia Hotel, where the transient clientele can while away the morning over a cup of tea and a sugarless mandazi doughnut; like many of the spin-offs of Kenya's UN gold rush, it has a tin roof and a cement floor and is painted in bright Legoland colours.

Lolpirdai's photos tell one side of his Yugoslavian experiences. There he is in military uniform, smiling with his fresh-faced buddies. And here's a shot of his suitcase, propped up on a chair with its lid open; inside, stacks of dollar bills are carefully laid out on top of his clothes like a bank robber's haul. As to how he earned his pot of gold, he is matter of fact. He had, for instance, learnt how to use a parachute (he calls it pamvuli, the Swahili word for umbrella). The course, as he tells it, consisted of jumping from a tower on to the ground and then being taken up in a plane and pushed out. "We went up so high you couldn't even see the plane from the ground," he remembers. "I was a little frightened the first time. It was OK after that."

Not entirely OK, though. When talking about the Serbs and the Croats, he is vehement. Although the ferocity of the fighting they witnessed left the Samburu unfazed, the atrocities they saw shocked them deeply. "They are not soldiers like we are," says Lolpirdai. "They slaughter wom-en and children like dogs. Real soldiers only fight men."

For his friend Gabriel Lekimain, the experience drastically rearranged his previously unblemished regard for Europeans. "I went into a house where they had shot the woman while she was cooking. She was lying on the floor, and her baby was sticking out of a pot on the stove. They had thrown it into the boiling water; its head had burst open. When you see children die like that, you want to cry. You're not afraid of dying yourself after that. You just know that you have to stop it happening again."

Lekimain was so traumatised by what he saw that he left the army on his return to Kenya. He has slipped easily into the leisurely pace of Sam- buru life, and much of his time is spent courting a young girl on whom he has lavished beaded necklaces. He is wearing his red shuka (sarong) with casual grace, but on his wrist there is a US Army watch, with SDM sub-machine-gun bullets sewn on to its leather strap.

ON THE vast plains of El Barta, in settlements such as Lesirikan and Baragoi, Samburu, life goes on, only partly transformed by the warriors' Balkan adventures. A few hours after our meeting, Lolpirdai attends the circumcision ceremony of two boys in their early teens. Both are clad in black and both are extraordinarily beautiful; there is a delicate vulnerability to their faces that is almost feminine. Beyond the boma (homestead), the plain is a moving kaleidoscope of red and white figures and brown and black cattle as the warriors drive the herds home for the ceremony. Bellows of protest rise above the sweeping horns and swirling dust.

The boys' elder brothers, Ltun-kayun Ledudej and John Lempesi, watch as the animals file past. Both bear the scars of conflict. Ledudej's are physical, wounds from a lion that left him with such bad septicaemia that he spent three months in hospital recovering. When the lion pinned him to the ground, he severed its jugular vein with his sword. Lem-pesi's are mental, the result of what he saw in the former Yugoslavia. He remembers his time with the UN on the Bosnia-Croatia border as one of lunatic brutality mingled with cam-araderie. Sometimes he would share his food (meat and yoghurt, a diet very similar to the one he enjoyed at home) with Serb fighters and talk through the night with them as they drank enormous quantities of vodka and wine which he, as a teetotaller, refused. The next day, the same Serbs would threaten to kill him. "They'd come running up to me and stick the barrel of their gun up against my neck. We were there to stop the fighting, not to kill people, so I'd say, 'Go on, shoot me.' Then I'd take the gun out of their hands."

Some of the Kenyan troops were delegated to guard pockets of elderly Croats from the Serbs who surrounded their villages. The Croats became so devoted to their guardians that they even learnt a smattering of Swahili. None the less, the Croatian government this year demanded the withdrawal of all African soldiers, saying that it would be preferable to have European peacekeepers. The UN complied with its wishes and dismissed the Kenyan battalion in May.

The circumcision ceremony has started, and Lolpirdai wanders over to photograph a group of warriors with his Instamatic. I look at his US Army watch and his "No Fly Zone, Bosnia-Hercegovina" T-shirt and sense the undertow of change. A savage conflict in a remote part of Europe has brought the Samburu to the brink of the modern world. Their tight-knit society of animals and grass, ritual and survival, will never be quite the same again. !

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence