What you need to know:
- The common denominator about these families is that they all maintain their loved ones were innocent.
- According to a report released by Haki Africa last year, Kwale has the highest number of cases of disappearances.
They have been reduced to utter penury, struggling to survive in an unforgiving environment that only attracts condescending sneers from neighbours and authorities.
Like turtles without shells, they live in persistent fear and stigma, unsure of their future after their husbands disappeared without a trace.
While some died in battle in foreign land, others were simply taken away by masked men with guns and never returned home. The dreaded men raid in the dead of the night, then leave with valuables.
Often struggling to keep their sons from answering the call that killed their fathers, theirs is a daily delicate balancing act between protecting what is left of the family and resisting the urge for vengeance.
For half-widows, it’s worse. Uncertain whether their husbands are dead or alive, they are in limbo.
Mariam Mwanyihaji is just one of the half-widows suffering for things she does not comprehend.
Her husband, Athman Suleiman, was taken away on June 17 when masked men stormed their house at 3am in Ng’ombeni, Kwale County.
They grabbed him from their bed and drove away. They did not give any reasons as required, though they mentioned a missing weapon.
In a matter of minutes, they were gone and that’s the last time Ms Mwanyihaji saw her husband. The swift operation left a traumatised wife who has spent sleepless nights ever since.
Grabbed and taken away
“We were both asleep when we had some people at the door. They identified themselves as police officers and when we opened, they ordered us to lie down. They were looking for a gun,” she recalls.
Athman is a former policeman who reportedly deserted the service after a disciplinary issue.
“He told me that he had been involved in an incident in camp and chose to escape for his safety.
When they grabbed him, I gave them a leso to wrap around him. There was nothing more I could do,” says Ms Mwanyihaji.
The tactic has been employed numerous times in similar raids in the region, where men end up vanishing for years. Some turn up dead, few return home, many disappear for good.
Ms Mwanyihaji has been married for 10 years and the couple has six children. The puzzling question is whether or not their father would come back home someday.
Due to fear, she reported the incident to the police three days later. As expected, they did not give it much attention as they probably knew the truth.
“They just told me to explain to them what happened, but they have never returned to me with any updates. I just wish I could be told where my husband is,” she says.
Disappearances and killings
She’s been to several hospital wards and mortuaries in Mombasa and Kwale but still, there are no signs of her man. The ‘officers’ also took away her cell phone and their children’s birth certificates.
“I don’t know what to do now. One of my children is supposed to resume school in Standard Eight and I do not have his birth certificate. I don’t know how he will be registered for exams,” says Ms Mwanyihaji.
As is often the case, women bear the brunt of the war on extremism. With all the disappearances and killings, they are left with huge family responsibilities as children grow without their fathers.
In Kwale, they have not had access to bursaries and benefits that come with underprivileged children, because they have nothing to prove that the fathers are dead.
In Funzi Island, about 65km from Mombasa, Shee Mohamed disappeared without a trace. He was an Imam at a local mosque.
His mother, Kinanasi Shee, still ‘mourns’ the loss of a son who was also picked up by a group of masked men at dawn.
“I am now taking care of four of his seven children. One of them was still breastfeeding when the father was taken away. I have stomach cancer and my son is the one who used to help me seek treatment in Tanga, Tanzania. Now I have no one to help me,” she says.
Interestingly, the common denominator about these families is that they all maintain their loved ones were innocent; they were ‘good people’ who were not involved in criminal activities; they were either businessmen or had earlier worked out of the country.
There are many other young women in the region who do not know the whereabouts of their husbands. They are usually married at about 24 years and shortly after, their husbands disappear.
According to ‘State of Human Rights at the Coast’, a report released by Haki Africa last year, Kwale has the highest number of cases of disappearances, followed by Mombasa and Lamu counties.
The organisation says Lamu could be the second leading if all the cases were recorded. Last year it had the highest number of enforced disappearances at 18, up by 64 per cent from 2019, which had 11 cases.
Haki Africa rapid response officer Mathias Shipeta says most families prefer finding a body than living in constant fear.
“Whenever we get information that a body has been found and taken to the mortuary, almost all the families call me. They are always curious to know if it’s their kin. Some will even ask about the features, for instance if he looks an Indian or Arab, while others will ask for support to travel to wherever the body is,” says Mr Shipeta.
Amid the mourning, there’s a glimmer of hope for widows who live in Bongwe, Kwale. The Kwale Women and Teens organisation has started counselling sessions and activities for affected families.
Fear and stigma
“I recently asked them to draft the kind of projects they would want to start. We need sewing machines, salon equipment and freezers so they can start small businesses,” says the organisation’s director, Mariam Kasuche.
Other than the societal stigma, most of the women want to advance their lives hence their request to start such businesses to provide for their needy children, she adds.
“In our culture, most women are housewives; they depend on their husbands to fend for them. Each family has about six children and that’s a huge responsibility for the women,” observes Ms Kasuche.
“We usually hold various meetings but our main challenge is the support we are asking for from well-wishers. I have spoken to religious leaders, and I think there is hope that they can finally get assistance.”
The law states that a person may be declared a widow if the husband goes missing for more than seven years. Mr Shipeta says due to the fear and stigma, many women whose husbands have disappeared end up going to their parents’ homes to take care of the children.
“It’s possible for some families to become hostile to a woman when the man vanishes. That’s why some of them leave with their children to start new lives,” he offers.
There are also cases of a women disappearing, especially in Kwale. There are also fears that the children end up being violent when they grow up.
“They are hurt by the way their parents are killed and creates the feeling of revenge when they grow up. It makes them radicalised because they end up blaming the state for all the problems in their families,” says a senior religious leader in Kwale.