Captives’ ordeal ends without much ado

Published on 31/03/2009

By Boniface Ongeri and Adow Jubat

The adage, “curiosity killed the cat”, nearly came to pass for five Kenyans arrested by Al-Shabaab militia at the Somalia town of Bullahawa.

It borders Mandera town.

The four education officials and their driver ventured along the Kenya-Somalia border to shop and glimpse the war torn country.

But they got more than they bargained for.

“We had just finished the first day of the North Eastern Provincial Primary School Games, when we decided to cross over and see first hand the other side (Somalia),” says Mr Abdullahi Madey, a lecturer with Wajir District Early Childhood Education Center.

Before they could satisfy their curiosity, they were spotted walking past the border crossing, manned by armed militias who approached them.

Wajir South District Education Officer Moses Mwangi (left) on arrival in Wajir from Somalia, where he and four others were held for three days. [PHOTOS: Boniface Ongeri/STANDARD]

“They took us to their station and asked our mission in their town. They said we had to record a statement, which we did,” Madey recalls.

“Apart from being confined and restricted, the men were not rough on us,” says Wajir South District Education Officer Moses Mwangi.

“They allowed us to keep our wallets and did not bother to frisk us. I even sent one of them to buy me some clothing in order to change,” he says.

“Our captors went the extra mile to make us as comfortable as possible”, North Eastern Provincial Quality Assurance Officer James Onyancha Onchiri said on arrival in Garissa after their release.

Mandatory prayers

Mr Abdikadir Mohammed, a driver, says he was initially horrified: “We felt intimidated by the sight of the youthful soldiers, some just boys, carrying machine guns and rocket launchers. But they assured us that we were victims of circumstances.”

It is believed they were arrested following the harassment of a militiaman who had crossed into Kenya earlier.

Bulla Hawa top official, Mr Ahmed Mohammed Yussuf Burkus, under whose authority the Kenyans were held, said Mandera police had arrested a Somali national the previous week.

He was charged in court, fined Sh20,000, and ordered deported for being in Kenya illegally.

“After he paid the fine, Mandera border police re-arrested the man and took a Sh10,000 bribe from him before releasing him. Later, they took Sh83,000 from a woman who sells milk,” Burkus claims.

Nevertheless, the Kenyan hostages were not mistreated.

“They gave us good beddings, mats, mattresses, mosquito nets and food during our three-day custody. They even provided us with bottled water,” says Mr Onchiri said. “They allowed us to bathe as often as possible and even bought us medicine.”

Onchiri was flanked by North Eastern Provincial Commissioner Josphat Maingi, NEP police boss Stephen Chelimo and Wajir South MP Abdirahaman Hassan Ali who were part of the negotiating team.

“We even gave them money to buy us soft drinks. They allowed us to communicate with our families to assure them that we were fine. When we had urgent messages to deliver, they allowed us to us our phones, which they had confiscated for a limited time,” Onchiri says.

Madey and Mohammed, who are Muslims, prayed with the captors during the daily five mandatory prayers.

“Praying with them gave us hope that things would be okay. They were unhappy with reports that we were kidnapped,” Madey says.

“They said they wanted to prove to the world they are not hostile and they have a genuine cause, contrary to reports. They told us they are staunch Muslims who would not harm an innocent person,” Mohammed says. They told us: “You will be okay. We just want to clear some bad images we are accused of.”

“They told us had we been Ethiopians, they would have killed us on the spot,” Onyancha says.

“They said the reason they captured us was to seek an opportunity to talk with our Government on pressing issues,” Madey says.

Common border

“When they realised that we are teachers in Kenya and we had no ill motives, some of the militia, who are in their early teens, asked us to teach them Kiswahili. They were eager to learn the language.,” Wajir South District Quality Assurance Officer Charles Nyakundi says.

They were not told when they would be freed, but there were some hints.

“They kept postponing our freedom. Moment before we were freed, they asked us whether any one of us was missing his belongings. Then they drove us to the common border, where we were handed over to Kenyan authorities,” he says.

“We are relieved to be free at last,” Onchiri says.

The five were released at 4.03pm, after a meeting between Somalia and Kenyan authorities, which lasted from 10am to 4am on Saturday.

The Kenyan side had the PC, PPO, Wajir South MP and Mandera East DC Francis Lenyangume, while the Bulla Hawa DC and top Al-Shabaab command for the Gedo region represented the Somali side.

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