Abimbo mine

Local artisans help in rescue operations at Abimbo gold mine in Bondo, Siaya County, on December 8, 2021. Eight people have so far been rescued, one has died while one is still trapped in the mine. 

| Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

Left to die: Man still buried in Siaya gold mine

The sight of villagers digging into the soil and trying to move rocks with bare hands paints a grim picture of the trapped Siaya gold miner’s chances of making it out alive.

Tom Okwach, 35, has not had a meal for 13 days now and the last communication with him was three days ago.

Siaya County government bulldozers have gone silent after running out of fuel, and the father of two appears to have been all but abandoned to die.

But his father, Martin Sikuku, is keeping alive hopes of reuniting with his son.

He stares into the opening of the 150-foot tunnel in which his son is trapped and throws his hands in the air, signalling the mounting desperation that has been weighing him down for nearly two weeks since the mine collapsed on his son and nine of his colleagues on December 2.

“All I need is to see my son, whether alive or dead. The emotional torture is unbearable. I just need closure to stop this pain I’m undergoing as I wait for news from the rescuers,” says Mr Sikuku.

The Abimbo mine pit is pitch dark and has little supply of oxygen. Okwach is the last one left out of a team of 10 artisanal miners who descended into the tunnel that fateful morning.

Eight were rescued alive from the collapsed mine while one succumbed to his injuries.

Logistical nightmares

The group of villagers struggling to move boulders soon run out of breath. They have been contributing money to buy fuel to get the excavator roaring to life again, to clear the rubble and make it easier for the rescue teams to work their way down the pit.

Okwach’s other family members have been camping at the mine, praying and hoping he will be pulled out alive.

But the rescue operation is hampered by logistical nightmares, and time is fast running out. The rescue teams have been battling fatigue, which makes it hard for them to keep their concentration.

Accusing fingers are pointed at county officials and the national government for failing to intervene by sending in experts and equipment to save the life of the miner.

Bare hands, hoes and shovels are what are now being used to scoop soil that is blocking access to the mine shaft. Disappointed villagers say the county and national governments have shown little commitment.

“I have kept vigil here for several days now but all I get from the county and national government officials is deafening silence on the fate of my son,” says Mr Sikuku.

Religious leaders have also been spending time by the collapsed mine and continue praying with Okwach’s family.

“The government should get experts who can retrieve my son from the rubble,” says Mr Sikuku, describing Okwach as jovial and the sole breadwinner of the entire family.

Before he ventured into mining, the 35-year-old had been a boda boda rider in Bondo Town. His earnings could barely support his young family, so he moved to Abimbo in October this year to seek better fortunes at the gold mines.

Volunteer rescuers

Mr Nobert Oketch, one of the volunteer rescuers, accuses the government of offering little assistance to the volunteers.

“These people have left their other engagements to come and help, at least some financial support would have motivated them, but the government is doing nothing to motivate them,” said Mr Aketch.

“Many people are willing to help but they should also be properly equipped. They should be given oxygen cylinders and safety jackets to ensure they are also protected,” said another rescuer, Mr Edwin Ogilo.

The county government has, however, denied claims that it has abandoned the rescue mission.

Mr George Aola, the county of the disaster management unit, told the Nation that they are supporting the families of the affected miners through cash donations and also ensuring the machines continue to work.

“We live in a society where many people may not see the efforts we make, but we are really trying and are hopeful that we will find the trapped miner alive,” said Mr Aola.

He added that they continue to face challenges in the rescue operation, which to him, has been slowed down by the weak ground that has collapsed several times.

“We have tried to reach Okwach and every time the ground around him collapses. We have tried to use various links but because of the loose soil around him, the same happens. But we are not giving up on him,” said Mr Aola.