Bongwe: The village of al-Shabaab’s lethal Kenyan terror cell

Bongwe: The village of Al Shabaab’s lethal Kenyan terror cell

For the past six years, Bongwe village in Kwale County was considered risky, particularly for strangers likely to be mistaken for spies.

Located in Ukunda, an hour's drive from Mombasa, the village was not accessible to ‘outsiders’ because doing so was considered the same as inviting a ‘death sentence’.

According to security authorities, Bongwe was a dangerous place with an active terror cell.

Here, al-Shabaab’s Jaysh Ayman members and Kenyan security agents played an endless tit-for-tat game.

Jaysh Ayman, which had its roots at Bongwe, was singled out for carrying out terror attacks.

In Bongwe, for every man that Jaysh Ayman killed, individuals strongly believed to be Kenyan security agents hunted down one or two of their members in retaliation.

It is also in this village where two elderly men were beheaded in 2020 for allegedly informing government officials about the members and activities of Jaysh Ayman.

Weeks later, dreaded late-night visits by masked gunmen ended in the abductions of those suspected to be al-Shabaab returnees.

Kwale County Police Commander Josephat Kinyua during an interview at his office in Kwale. He lauded local leaders for working closely with security agents in ensuring that peace is restored in Bongwe/ Gombato area that was once dreaded.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi I Nation Media Group

Their bodies would later be found in the Tsavo West National Park at different times, having strangulation marks, with some having their hands tied and eyes gouged out.

In some cases, burnt polythene was found stuck to the bodies and particularly on the legs, private parts, necks and hands.

Among those whose bodies were found at the Makindu Sub-County Hospital mortuary, hundreds of kilometres from where they had been abducted are Juma Said Sarai, Khalfan Suleiman Linuku, Abdalla Nassir Gatana and Usama Nassir.

When the families went to positively identify the four, 30 other unclaimed bodies were lying at the mortuary with almost similar features. 

When journalists would attempt to visit the isolated Bongwe village, they would be told that talking to them or security agents about Jaysh Ayman was as good as inviting a death sentence.

FROM LEFT: Binti Mwanaphonza, Mesalimu Ali, Mwanauba Yeya and Zuhura Msaji share a light moment while at their business premise in Ukunda. They are all half widows who have come together to start businesses after they lost their breadwinners.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi I Nation Media Group

The families all maintain that their relatives were innocent and were not involved in criminal activities.

For some, the situation is worse; there are women who are uncertain whether their husbands are dead or alive.

When the Nation’s investigations desk visited Bongwe village recently, a lot seemed to have changed.

Amid mourning, there’s a glimmer of hope for these families.

After several visits to hospitals, police stations and mortuaries across the country, sharing the same pain and left with only memories of their loved ones, the Bongwe widows in Kwale have now joined hands and partnered up to start businesses to look after their families.

Ms Zuhura Msaji, who has lived in Bongwe for the last 40 years, says between 2014-2015, there were areas the residents themselves could not sett foot in because they were considered dangerous zones.

“Those days we could not go to Mabokoni as any motorcycle riders would refuse to take you. People lived behind closed doors, worried whether their husbands, sons or brothers would be the next victims. To date, we do not know if those who abducted them were police officers or al-Shabaab,” explains Ms Msaji.

Mwanauba Yeya during an interview while at her business premise in Ukunda. She join hands with other half widows to start businesses after they lost their breadwinners.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi I Nation Media Group

Ms Msaji, who now owns an eatery in Ukunda, says it took her a while before gathering the courage to attend counselling sessions.

“We are grateful because were it not for civil society organisations teaming up and offering us the psychosocial support we needed, I am not sure if I would be doing this business today. It was a scary moment, especially for us families,” says Ms Msaji, noting there are others who went into hiding, fearing for their lives.

Ms Mwanauba Yeya, 50, says back in the day, they would wake up at 4am and be thankful they are alive and in Bongwe.

“We were always on standby because we did not know who the next target would be. By 5pm everyone had picked up their children from school and we locked ourselves indoors,” recalls Ms Yaye.

For Binti Mwaraphonza they still hurt inside but convince themselves with time all will be okay. She is one of the women considered 'half-widows' whose husband vanished.

“As half-widows until now, we do not know whether our loved ones are dead or alive; as a healing process, we partnered up and started a cooking business to heal our emotional pain,” says Ms Mwaraphonza.

Ms Mesalimu Ali, who lost more than seven relatives during the night raids, says the group's pain brought them together.

“We saw it was best to stand in as breadwinners of our family, our children depended on us. All we are praying for is to never experience what we did back then,” says Ms Ali.

Mzee Shaban Goyo, an elder at the Ukunda Settlement scheme, says most of the area chiefs and village elders fled because they were targeted for being informers.

“Others fled the village for their safety while some are recovering from gun wounds they sustained, but they are reluctant to speak to outsiders because they fear for their lives,” says Mr Goyo.

Mr Abdirahman Mwagoka, the Kwale coordinator of the Human rights lobby Muhuri, called for the government to form a commission of inquiry to look into the extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, noting it would help to avoid similar incidents in future.

“There are other families who have not healed five years later. We have tried our part to offer them guidance and counselling sessions but also the government to look into the Bongwe incident and those found with cases to answer to be brought before the court of law,” says Mr Mwangoka.

Kwale police boss Josphat Kinyua praised local leaders for working closely with the security authorities in ensuring peace is restored.

He says the collaboration has helped bring peace back to an area that was once considered dangerous.

“Border patrols have been intensified. We are now dealing with minor issues of youths forming criminal gangs and stealing from people. I want to urge parents even as we continue to deal with these cases to be on the lookout for what their children are engaging themselves in daily,” says Mr Kinyua.