Kenya: How Abduction of Italian Sylvia Romano Brought Hell to Tana Delta Village

opinion

It's mid-morning in Hamesa. Silence haunts the lonely village paths as the scorching sun hits the disturbing emptiness like a blowtorch. There is hardly a soul in sight.

Just three years ago, the village was a picture of vibrancy. Excited livestock traders would go about their business during the day and later meet under treeshades for an animated evening chat.

All was well until April 2019, when police came looking for an Italian volunteer, Ms Sylvia Constanca Romano, who had allegedly been abducted. Intelligence reports said she was being held hostage in one of the homes by her "boyfriend".

The residents didn't make much of it until people started disappearing, plucked from their beds in the dead of night. Mr Abdi Mohammed, 59, had just married his second wife when his life turned upside down.

Three days after his wedding to Asha Abdi, 22, armed men in combat fatigues picked him up from his house at midnight, just as he was settling in for the night. To date, he insists the men were police officers.

Someone had supposedly linked him to the disappearance of Ms Romano, mentioning him as the host of the abductors, he was told.

"I was half naked, just in my shuka (cloth wrap) when they kicked down my door, knocked me out with gun butts, and took me away," he recalls.

Blindfolded

When he regained consciousness, he found himself blindfolded, on the floor of a van on a murram road. On realising he was awake, they knocked him out again.

"I woke up with a sharp headache. My hands were tied at the back with a strong rope and I noticed only my toes could touch the floor," he recounts. He could hear people screaming and others groaning in pain from various places in the room, which had water on the floor.

A cold breeze swept the room, making him realise he had been stripped of his shuka and was naked and blindfolded. Then suddenly, freezing water was poured on him, followed by a stinging slap.

"They asked me to reveal where the Italian woman was, and who was with her, claiming that I was a key accomplice in her abduction," he said. Mr Mohammed was shocked, because he had no clue about the missing Italian woman, but they would hear none of it.

The torture continued for days, and it even became difficult to tell whether it was day or night, as the blindfold stayed on throughout.

"My ribs were aching. My chest was in pain. I was gasping for air, and hunger was taking a heavy toll on me," he says. The screams of men pleading for mercy gave him the chills.

"My tormentor told me my torture was just beginning, and he promised that unless I talked, I was going to die like all the rest," he said. While his torture was more of whipping and blows to his body, he could hear others pleading for their hands, teeth, and other body parts to be spared.

"I could hear men pleading for their lives. It was a terrifying experience," he recounted.

On the last day with his tormentors, he was made to sit on a chair with a hole in the middle leaving his private parts hanging through.

With nothing to say about the Italian, Mr Mohamed says he felt a sharp pain on his private parts before he passed out.

Full speed

"I came to on the floor of a vehicle in full speed on a rough road. I had been bundled into a vehicle after I fainted and dropped in the bush near my village. I could not even walk home by myself that day. I watched buffaloes pass me where I lay on the ground until dawn, when some young men from my village came for me," he said. His abductors had warned him against disclosing any information lest they come back and "finish" him.

Read: Elders say abducted Italian volunteer not in Tana River

"I have been living in fear. For the better part of 2019, strange people would just pass by my home, but I knew they just wanted to intimidate me," he said. More than six men were picked from this village in Tana Delta, tortured, and left with various disabilities before they were abandoned close to their homes.

Two of them have since died, likely from the injuries they sustained during the torture. The rest are living in fear for their lives.

"I was forced to let my young wife go after I realised that I may never sire children," Mohamed says, adding: "I sent her away because having her here would be tortuous. She was young and wanted to start a family, something I knew I couldn't offer anymore," he said. The dark day has left the village shaken and suspicious of the police, with village elder Ijema Godana asking the government to compensate the victims.

"There are things as an elder I can solve, but the case of these men is beyond my wisdom. I can't even begin to understand their pain," Mr Godana said. Mr Abdi Ogle, local coordinator of lobby group Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri), said some of the men are ailing because of the torture, while others are dealing with sleeping disorders.

He called on the government to investigate the torture allegations and compensate the victims. More than 1,300 people are said to be suffering from trauma as a result of police brutality, said Ms Rebecca Gamalaku, the county coordinator of Search For Common Ground, an NGO involved in ending conflict around the world.

Share information

"Security agencies have not been kind with the people, hence the hate, but we are trying to create that conversation so that they can start to trust each other," she said.

Tana River County Commissioner Mbogai Rioba registered his regrets over the people who experienced torture during the search for the Italian woman, urging organisations to provide counselling to the affected men and their families.

He added that it has been difficult for locals to share any information with the police due to fear of being victimised.

"In the recent clashes in Madogo, we have worked so hard to get information on the gun that was used, but both the affected and the perpetrators are not willing to open up because they fear they will be held as witnesses and branded traitors by the community," he said.

Mr Rioba noted that, even when youths go missing for months or years, their parents do not report it, posing a security challenge.

However, he noted that the local security organs, together with the chiefs, are formulating a different approach in dealing with the locals to build trust and goodwill.

"You can see in Madogo we went for dialogue, not even a single bullet was fired. We only stood guard and things calmed, that's why we achieved a meeting with the elders," he added, referring to recent clashes in which several people were killed.

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