The day Al-Shabaab called
Kenya: As the evening sun kissed goodbye the hills over Othaya on September 7, 2012, Damaris Wamaitha, 30, received a strange text message in her phone at exactly 6.07pm.
The message was from the most of the unlikeliest of senders. It read:
“I am the hit (sic) of Al-Shabaab area of dhobley we don’t want to give you the body of your brother forget about it we buried already and tell the neigbour of you (sic) to not come to Somalia,” the message read.
The text message ruined her evening and changed her life forever.
“I wondered why it was happening to us,” she recalls, “We were a religious family. We believed in God and thought it was unfair for the suffering we were going through.”
The content of the ominous message concerned her only brother, Private George Karari Maina, 24, described as a loving and a religious young man. He was barely of drinking age when he was deployed to Somalia two years after enlisting with the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF).
The SMS arrived through phone number, +277 866 88781, bearing the international calling code for Niger republic in West Africa, thousands of miles away from Somalia where his brother was deployed.
The following day a new message hit her inbox at 10.52pm.
“Please your bro is not died (sic) his life he has good health even we can make for you to hear his voice, thanks,” the message said.
These latest message came from Somalia using the number +252 616 000 299. This time round, Wamaitha, Karari’s eldest sister, was compelled to respond. She hit back: “Please give him the phone I talk to him.”
And so the family waited. But their text went unanswered. It marked the beginning of a three-month traumatising search for their brother.
It was a painful search that the Karari family would not wish on any other family. The search saw father and daughters with minimal skills negotiate with the Al-Shabaab in a fruitless attempt to have their loved one released alive.
Days after he disappeared, Maina, his father, recalls the moment he received a call from Al-Shabaab like it happened yesterday.
He was attending a funeral when his phone rang.
When I answered it I shouted Karari, Karari, they answered ‘this is not Karari’, and asked why I sent my son to a war that does not involve him. I told them he is a grown up and I cannot influence what he thinks. That is when they said they would kill him. At that moment I had to hold myself for support because I almost fell down,” he narrates.
Mzee Maina was now trembling. He felt like an antelope caught in the glare of headlight. Ambushed and terrified, negotiating with men who could easily snuff out his son’s life and later sit down for a cup of tea.
The call lasted seven excruciating minutes in which the father felt compelled to plead for his son’s life.
He says he could hear background voices one of which sounded like that of his son, which made him desperate. The tormentors were playing with his mind. “I heard a voice in the background say “baba yako” and I thought they had him captive, grilling him for information as they spoke to me,” he remembers.
Karari does not blame himself or the Government for the death of his son. “I read about Al-Shabaab in newspapers and I know what they are capable of. Even if, the Government pulled out troops from Somalia they could still kill my son,” he says with finality.
After the calls, he consulted widely. His family was advised to take a stand that would keep their son alive.
“I went to the sub chief and told him what was going on and he took us to the DCIO who told us to pretend we are neutral and we are neither for the Government or for the military and then maybe they will spare his life,” he says.
Wamaitha also kept engaged with Al-Shabaab.
“One day, they picked the call and said that Karari was hurt and he was undergoing treatment,” the 30-year-old says. “Another time, the phone was picked and the caller introduced himself as one of his colleagues at a camp but did not say his name. The caller declined to allow me to talk to him.”
Days later, she received another call from a man who identified himself as a commander with Al-Shabaab.
“He was speaking in good Kiswahili and said that they were not releasing my brother. He said they will kill him,” she recalls.
The mind torture games went on like an unstoppable horror movie.
Two days later, the family received a message. “We have killed and buried him,” it read.
Pressure from both local and international journalists as well as social media was also taking its toll on the family. The Fourth Estate would frequently call to find out Karari’s status.
One of the conversations between Wamaitha and the Al-Shabaab as she pleads for her brother’s release had gone viral on the internet transforming to a global icon of resilience for a loved one.
Posted to Somalia
George grew up wanting to be a soldier. He admired the career from childhood, according to his father. And when he got the chance in 2010, he grabbed it and never looked back.
Private Karari was posted to Somalia in June 2012 as part of the normal replacement of troops who had finished their combat duty after the fall of Afmadow town to KDF.
The men from the Eldoret-based 9KR battalion were deployed in the mission to capture the port city of Kismayu, Al-Shabaab’s remaining bastion.
However, Karari never saw the city of Kismayu. As the convoy wheezed through curtains of dust just a few kilometres after leaving Afmadow, the battalion came under severe attack.
The ambush resulted in the deaths of Lieutenant Francis Muthini, and Private Joseph Nditika Nyamu, Private Martin Kimngich and Corporal Charles Ndemo.
Karari and Private Aden Suleiman were the only two men who never returned to base after combat. The military classified them as missing in action (MIA).
Maina recalls the day his son left for war. It seemed like last week and his memories were still fresh.
“On the day he was leaving, we went to our church here where he asked the pastor to pray for him before he went to Somalia,” he says, smarting in military black boots at his Othaya farm.
It had taken us days to convince him to talk to us and open up about his son. His wish, he says, is to find lasting peace after the death of Karari whom he described as a very prayerful son.
“When they were crossing over to Somalia, he called and found that his sister was at home with a pastor. He requested that a prayer be made for him over the mobile phone,” Maina recalls.
While at the warfront, Karari updated his family regularly on how he was fairing on, telling his sisters, Wamaitha and Lydia, that KDF will “triumph over the enemy.” But there are days when he was less optimistic.
For instance, on July 5, 2012, he sent Wamaitha a text message, “Hi Siz (sic), I am alright here in Somalia, many have stopped breathing since the year started, many had bad accidents which left them disabled but for us God has taken care of us and made us strong. It’s truly God’s Love. May his name be praised. Amen.”
On August 29, he sent a text message to Lydia. This was conceivably the last time that the family heard from him. When his sister replied, she did not receive a delivery confirmation for the next three days.
It morphed into three days of agony. His family says the anxiety of waiting to talk to him nearly killed them.
“We sent messages and made phone calls but got no response,” the father recalls. “When you have a son at war and he is not receiving your phone calls or sending back messages, you never sleep.”
On August 31, the family now on the brink of breaking down, made a call to Moi Barracks.
“A man on the line promised to call us back after 20 minutes with more information,” his father says. He never did.
The following day, a soldier from the 9KR battalion arrived at Karari’s home and announced that their brother was missing in action.
The family stared at him quizzically. How he could be missing yet they had been talking to him on phone until recently?
It was until after the capture of Kismayu that military officials called again. They announced they had found unidentified bodies at a shallow grave. One of the decomposed bodies might be that of their brother, a KDF officer told them.
It turned out that all the time Al-Shabaab had been communicating with them and keeping a tiny flame of hope alive, the terror group had already killed Karari and were playing cruel mind games.
“The Al-Shabaab tortured us in keeping us in the dark without informing us whether he was alive or not. However, KDF made it worse. It is so difficult to extract information from these people (the military). It is as if they have no time or they just don’t know how to deal with the common man,” the father protests.
“There are days I could call and speak to over six different people without getting feedback. This is inhuman,” he moans.
When the unidentified bodies were flown from Kismayu and taken to the KDF Memorial Hospital, his family travelled to the city for a number of times to provide samples for DNA.
“We wished to find any part of his body to bury because we wanted to start a healing process as soon as possible,” he says. “We even wanted just his bones.”
He was killed a few months short of celebrating his 25th birthday.
The Karari’s say they will never forget him. But Wamaitha has not given up. She believes that he is brother is still alive somewhere. “Sometimes I feel like he is still out there. We were never shown or independently verified the DNA results. What if we buried someone else?” she asks.
She still receives calls from Somalia from unidentified people who claim that Karari is still alive.
Like any father who loses a son, Maina remains a bitter man. He gets emotional and cries when thinking about him. “My bitterness is not so much on the fact that my son was killed in the line of duty but how we have been treated as a family after his death,” he says, his eyes misty with emotion.
“People say you can forget,” he says thoughtfully. Then adds: “But we cannot forget.”
By: PAUL WAFULA and NYAMBEGA GISESA