Kenya: Through the Shadow of Death on Kenya's Dangerous Road

12 September 2020

For bus travellers, the journey between Lamu and Mombasa is always a nerve-wracking event. It is a trip characterised by fear, sometimes terror and a lot of "necessary" inconvenience. It is a journey like no other.

I set off from the Island by 7am to be at the Lamu Jetty at exactly 7.30am, in time to catch a boat to the Mokowe Jetty on the mainland so as to catch the Tawakal bus leaving at 8am.To be sure of being on this bus, I opt for a speedboat and the ride sets me back Sh200.

We are nine passengers when the boat embarks on the 15-minute ride to Mokowe. On arrival, the first order of business is a security check by the bus operators, who inspect every passenger's luggage and ask for ID. This is the first of many security checks,

At exactly 8am, the bus leaves its station for Mombasa.

At this time there is excited chatter among the passengers. Everyone is looking forward to a great trip to the coastal city.

But this excitement gives way to apprehension when we reach Hindi in Lamu West, where a police check ensues. From here, vehicles are not allowed to proceed without police escort, so our bus joins the queue.

Series of attacks

Travelling in a convoy is a security measure that came into force in December 2014, following a series of terrorist attacks on travellers on that route, especially in public service vehicles, blamed on al-Shabaab militants.

The convoy usually comprises buses, private vehicles and police Land Cruisers.

At Hindi, we spend about an hour waiting for the formation to be complete after which the convoy, accompanied by three police Land Cruisers each carrying eight heavily armed police officers, snakes out. One Land Cruiser takes the lead, the other covers the middle while the third covers the back of the convoy.

The lead car dictates the speed of the convoy. There are places it speeds up and others where it slows down.

Our first stop is at the Ndeu roadblock somewhere between Hindi and Mpeketoni, where we all alight for security checks by police officers as their hawk-eyed colleagues, guns at the ready, scan the surrounding bushes and thickets, looking out for any dangers hidden behind them.

Only those with valid ID cards pass this block. Minors, especially teenagers, have to show some form of identification, either school IDs or birth certificates. Those without identification documents are detained.

The checks take about 15 minutes, after which we get back into our vehicles and take off.

In the next 30 minutes, we pass through Milihoi, arguably the most dangerous section of this road. The tension in the bus is palpable. Curious people who have been sticking their heads out of windows now cower in their seats and maintain silence. Mothers tightly embrace their children.

Even the jovial driver has since turned off the loud taarab music blasting through the speakers. It is like everyone is in silent prayer mode.

Dozens of civilians and security officers have been killed by the Shabaab here and shivers run down my spine as I imagine the same fate could befall me.

I remember Mariam El Maawy, the Public Works Principal Secretary who, on July 13, 2017, was taken hostage by the militants after they ambushed her motorcade at this very section. The PS was rescued by a unit from the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) but later died in September of that year at a South African hospital while undergoing treatment for the injuries she sustained during the attack.

But I banish the thoughts of danger because there are camps manned by the KDF and the General Service Unit at Milihoi.

Thankfully, we leave Milihoi without a glitch and everyone seems to sigh with relief. Soon, the chatter resumes. Even the music.

From Milihoi, we proceed to Koreni, Mkunumbi and Kibaoni, most of which are occupied by pastoral communities.

After Kibaoni, we head for Mambo Sasa, another terror hotspot. This is where, on July 19, 2014, heavily armed al-Shabaab militants ambushed a Tahmeed Bus en route to Lamu from Mombasa at around 6.30pm and sprayed it with bullets. Seven people, including four police officers, were killed during the attack.

At Mambo Sasa, another security check is conducted by KDF soldiers and police officers at a roadblock. A keen observer can pick out security officers behind nearby thickets.

Traffic police officers

In about 30 minutes we are done with the checks and get back on the road. We get to Witu town, where another road block is mounted by traffic police officers. At this roadblock, we don't disembark, as the focus is on the drivers and conductors who have to produce their work documents. This takes five minutes.

As we head towards Tana Delta, tension creeps back. Word is that there are no more security checks till Gamba. Yet we have to go through Nyongoro and Lango la Simba, which are insecurity hotspots.

The drivers are therefore instructed to increase speed in Lango la Simba where, in November 2017, a convoy of buses from Lamu to Mombasa was attacked by Shabaab terrorists and three policemen injured.

On January 2 this year, three people were killed and three others seriously injured when suspected militants attacked a bus headed for Lamu from Mombasa at Nyongoro. From Witu to Gamba it take us one long hour.

The 135km Lamu-Witu-Garsen road is still under construction by the H-Young Construction Company in collaboration with GIBB Africa Limited. Owing to the security concerns, the sections at Nyongoro and Lango la Simba have not been tarmacked by the contractor and remain bad, making it hard for vehicles to speed through.

The bumpy ride is uncomfortable, but we don't complain.

Finally, we arrive at Gamba on the border of Lamu and Tana River counties. We all sit back and relax. The police escort turns back to accompany a convoy headed for Lamu, which we find at the roadblock.

Our next stop and final security check at the Minjila junction, a 20-minute drive from Gamba. Here, we alight with our luggage for and checks by KDF soldiers and police. In 10 minutes we get on our way.

Thankfully, there are no more checks and we get to the Bondeni terminus in Mombasa at 2pm in one piece. And my heart is filled with gladness.

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