Kenya: At the Coast, Dozens Go Missing After Dreaded Visits By Masked Gunmen

24 November 2020

At around 2am on October 30, a loud bang jolted Mr Mohammed Hussein out of deep sleep.

The father of four turned to his terrified wife, Ms Thuweba Omar, who was now also awake. They feared the worst as they had heard stories of such raids on this Funzi Island, a mangrove-fringed settlement in Kwale.

Just as the couple got out of bed, about 10 gunmen burst into the house, shouting and ordering them to identify themselves.

"They said they were police officers and asked us our names. They took photos. Then they handcuffed my husband and asked him to get a coat to protect him from the cold," Ms Omar recalled.

As questioning was going on, some of the armed men were ransacking the house but did not say what they were looking for. Once done, they left the house with her husband.

Ms Omar says one of the men came back in and asked her what her husband did for a living.

"I told him my husband is an imam and a mason," she recollected. The man left and the group disappeared into the darkness.

That was the last time she saw her husband.

"When they picked him up, he was about to take his diabetes medicine, which they asked him to carry. I do not know why they came for him, but my husband has no arrest record," Ms Omar said.

She insists the men were police officers.

Mr Shee Hussein said his brother failed to return for days and they could not find him at any of the police stations in Kwale. They reported the matter to Msambweni police post. The case is still under investigation.

Forced disappearances

Mr Hussein's abduction is the latest of at least eight cases reported between August and October this year.

Haki Africa, a rights NGO, says at least 20 families from Lamu, Mombasa and Kwale counties are in anguish after their relatives went missing in similar circumstances. Their families and rights activists claim they are victims of enforced disappearance by a special anti-terror unit said to target suspected al-Shabaab terrorists.

They also insist that their missing kin have no links to terrorism.

However, authorities say they have nothing to do with the disappearances. They reject claims that officers from the Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU) carried out the arrests.

Coast regional police boss Gabriel Musau denied claims of police involvement, adding that police are not engaging in forced disappearances as "that is not within the law".

In an interview at his office, he also disputed reports that 20 men have disappeared this year.

"I would not agree on the number that you are quoting. We follow the criminal justice system. For those (suspects) we feel can be helped through a rehabilitation programme, we do it. That is what we have been working on with county governments in regards to radicalisation," explained Mr Musau.

Yet it is the authorities' denial that the men are in its custody that has left residents even more terrified. There is some comfort in knowing someone is in the hands of police. You know where to find them, and ultimately, they will be afforded a fair hearing.

Not so, they say, when armed gunmen are on a brazen abduction mission and the government position is that it knows nothing about it.

Palpable fear of strangers

When the Nation.Africa team visited the sleepy Bongwe/Gombato village in Kwale this month, the fear of strangers, especially those in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, was evident.

When our driver pulled over to find a suitable spot to park, residents who were going about their business suddenly turned their focus on the new arrivals. Some peeled away, keen to get as far away from trouble as possible.

Besides the night raids, some victims have been seized by the roadside.

Mr Mahmud Mohammed Ganzalla, an imam at Kombani mosque in Kwale, was abducted in January by four people who bundled him into a double-cabin pick-up truck. They drove away with him and he has not been seen again.

Mr Abubakar Kalama, on the other hand, was seized by gunmen who stormed his house in Mtongwe, Likoni Sub County in Mombasa, at around 2am in August.

The men, eyewitnesses say, wore police uniform and had covered their faces with black balaclavas. They were also accompanied by a foreigner.

According to Kalama's elder sister, Ms Pili Hassan, the gunmen who identified themselves as security agents appeared to be led by a white man. The team searched for mobile phones.

When they found two phones after turning the house upside down, the foreigner asked whom they belonged to. Mr Kalama said they were his, and he was escorted out of the house.

Before they left, they beat up other men who were in the house.

The family said it went to all police stations in Mombasa looking for Kalama, but did not find him.

"My brother schooled at Longo primary and Ng'ombeni secondary schools. He has also been doing carpentry in Mwimbini village and there is no day that he has been reported to the area chief, let alone the police," said Ms Hassan.

Police said they were not aware of his disappearance.

Rarely ends well

For families that have been lucky to trace their missing relatives, it is almost always a tragic ending.

In the past two years, more than 15 bodies have been found at the Tsavo National Park. Among them were those of Juma Said Sarai, Khalfan Linuku Abdalla, Nassir Gatana and Usama Nassir, who went missing between November and December last year.

The bodies of the youths -- all from Bongwe -- showed signs of torture by burning. They also bore signs of strangulation, according to their families.

Following the revelation that the national park was being used as a dumping ground for bodies in extra-judicial killings, families of the missing started flocking the reserve. However, no bodies have been found in the latest missing persons' cases.

Too scared to speak

A few individuals have been released following their abduction, but all have been too scared to speak out about their ordeal.

This was the case with two Muslim clerics and a madrasa caretaker, who were reportedly abducted at Mtondia, Kilifi County in August.

Sheikh Khalid Swaleh, popularly known as Sheikh Kaka, Mr Ustadh Juma Shamte and the madrasa's caretaker, Mr Hassan Ouma, were reportedly seized on August 16 from their madrasa.

A week later, Sheikh Swaleh and Mr Shamte were found walking to their home in Kilifi. Mr Ouma was released somewhere else.

"They appeared traumatised and they were just crying when they reunited with their families. They have not yet given the details of their disappearances because of the disturbed status that they are currently in," a family member told Nation.Africa.

It is the same fear that is eating up Said Abdallah Chitswa, whose brother Mohammed Mapenzi was killed together with his two children by police officers.

Police acknowledged being involved in the raid, but said Mapenzi was a terror suspect. In their operation report, police said Mapenzi used his two children as a shield, a claim the family refuted.

During the operation, Coast Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) boss Washington Njiru said two suspects (among them Chitswa) had been arrested.

Now, a dog's bark frightens Mr Chitswa, 50, as it reminds him of the terror unleashed on them that night. His family and human rights groups say his brother was executed in front of his children.

During the night police raid residents reported to have heard loud bangs coming from Kibundani village.

"We heard three loud explosions and the sounds of bullets being fired," recalled Khamis Karama.

That night the police were reported to have used an explosive to blow away the door to the house.

The officers then started asking about a firearm, which Mr Chitswa said he was not aware of.

"They beat us severely. My ribs were injured. I could not walk that night and I was ferried in a police vehicle to their Diani station," he recounted.

Since the raid, Mr Chitswa has been reporting to Diani police station as directed, but he doesn't know why he makes the weekly appearance at the station.

"I cannot sleep around people. I am always tensed. I feel like those people will be back any time soon. I live in the same house where the unexpected happened," he told us in an interview in Kwale.

"People fear renting near my house because of what happened. This is a big dent on my life that I have to endure. I am suffering for a mistake that has no basis," he said.

Mr Chitswa said his brother, who police claimed was a terror suspect, was a mason and was contracted by several hotels in Diani to put up makuti roofs.

People who knew his brother confirmed that he used to work in the hotels.

"But what the police accused him of is something we have never known him about. They must know better," said one of the residents of the area who knew the deceased.

"We have been left with a bad tag. The incident painted a bad picture of us in the eyes of those who knew us," said Mr Chitswa, a former football player.

Claims of links to al-Shabaab is what also led to the death of terror suspect Juma Athman Mwengo, who was felled in August.

Even as the family maintains it's in the dark over his involvement in terrorism, his brother, Hassan Juma, said life has not been the same again for them.

He said a raid by police a week before they caught up with Mwengo left the family traumatised.

"The children have known no peace since the incident happened. We feel that was not the best way for the police to deal with that issue, but we leave it all to God," he said.

Mr Hassan said the family feels victimised over an issue that would have been handled in a professional manner without creating tension among the family members.

"But that is done already and God knows better about my brother's ways. If he was what police said he was then God will judge him accordingly," he said.

Police said they killed Mwengo at his Tiribe hideout in Matuga after a two-year hunt.

"The suspect was ordered to surrender but charged with a panga, intending to harm one of the officers. In the process, he was fatally injured," read a police report.

Police said Mwengo was a known recruiter and planner of terror activities in Mombasa and Kwale counties.

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