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What you need to know:
- Parents advised to have updated photos of their children to make it easy to trace them in case they go missing.
- Parents also advised to always take note of where their children are and what they are doing.
A sudden surge in cases of kidnapping and murder of children is creating fear on whether there is commercialisation of what has for a long time been considered as a crime in the country.
In the last two months, at least a child has been reported as missing every two or three days in various news outlets.
There is no centralised database by the police on the number of children who are kidnapped daily but a database from Missing Child Kenya, a portal that keeps track of children who are missing, reports that in April, 28 cases were recorded by the non-governmental agency.
It accepts a missing case once a complainant has obtained an occurrence book (OB) number from the police. Of those, 14 are still missing.
And in May, some 21 children were reported missing to the organisation. Only seven were found and another 14 are still missing.
Last year, the agency says, 242 children were reported missing: 117 males and 125 females. Of those, 10 were found dead — seven boys and three girls. In that period, the least number of missing cases in a month (9) was reported in April. The highest number (32) in September.
While some of the children reported to have gone missing have been lucky to be reunited with their parents, others are turning up dead. It is the murder of Shantel Nzembi three weeks ago that has sent all the alarm bells ringing.
The kidnapping and murder of the eight-year-old from Kitengela in Kajiado had all the hallmarks of a low level criminal gang that was out to extort the girl’s humble parents in exchange for her freedom.
They not only ended up kidnapping the wrong girl but also killed her when they could not get the Sh300,000 ransom they were demanding.
What is even more worrying is the fact that Shantel’s parents are labourers in a factory, which means they are not wealthy, a fact that ordinarily would have made kidnapping the girl unattractive to the suspects who did it.
Targeted for kidnap
Even then, the girl who was originally supposed to be kidnapped is the daughter of a police officer.
And since Shantel’s parents and the police officer whose daughter was originally targeted for kidnap are not rich, authorities and organisations dealing with child safety say the pattern is shifting.
Unlike what you would expect, criminals are now going for children belonging to humble backgrounds as they are considered easier targets.
“Children go missing for various reasons. There are those who innocently lose their way home, some are trafficked while others are kidnaped either by criminals or by parents warring over custody,” says Maryana Munyendo, the founder of Missing Child Kenya.
“In terms of abductions, it is more prevalent in urban compared to rural areas and informal settlements are contributing high numbers,” she says.
On Thursday, opposition leader Raila Odinga waded into the matter saying he too was concerned with the increasing reports of missing and murdered children.
“We cannot turn our backs on our children. We need vigilance. We need to report suspicious activities early and immediately. Let’s end this sad trend,” said Mr Odinga in a statement to commemorate the day of the African Child. The source is worse in low-income neighbourhoods.
A spot check in various police stations in Nairobi shows that Pipeline, Kayole, Dandora, Kariobangi, Eastleigh, Kawangware and Kangemi report more lost children than the rest of the regions.
Authorities say the nature of low income urban areas with overcrowding, lack of safe play areas and general disorganisation makes it easy for criminals to identify and kidnap children who are their targets.
Unlike the middle class and rich children who live in gated neighbourhoods and are rarely left playing or going to school unsupervised, the poor kids are mostly on their own the moment they step out of their houses.
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On Thursday, detectives from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) based at the Embakasi Police Station reunited baby Michelle Kemunto and her parents Hellen and Robert Ooko in Pipeline Estate, Nairobi.
The girl, 3, was playing with her friend outside their house when she disappeared on June 8.
According to the DCI, Michelle was kidnapped by a woman who took her to a Ms Ruth Atieno who lives within the neighbourhood. Apart from Michelle, the woman also had another baby who she left with.
“Ms Atieno told our officers that the woman said she was going to pick up something at Mradi in Tassia and couldn’t make it with her two babies, at one go. Ms Atieno, therefore, agreed to stay with the baby for a while,” said the DCI. “That was the last time Atieno saw the woman,” said the DCI.
After three days, the woman eventually called Ms Atieno saying that she had been involved in a road accident and was admitted at the Mbagathi Hospital.
She then requested her to hand over Michelle to another person whom she was sending over. The DCI suspects that Michelle was almost being trafficked had Ms Atieno not become jittery and reported the matter to the Tassia Police Post.
“Detectives are currently pursuing the female suspect, who is believed to be part of a larger syndicate behind the spate of child kidnappings,” said the DCI of the kidnapping.
As Michelle was being handed back to her parents, the Hasfa Mohamed Lukman’s kin were scrambling to raise Sh5 million demanded from her abductors.
A horrific video obtained by the Saturday Nation from police sources shows Hasfa with a bloodied face, swollen lips and both of her hands bound by a tape.
In the video, she is heard being prodded by a man to ask for money from her sister to be set free.
“Talk, talk!” The man orders.
“What should I say?” Hasfa responds.
“Talk to you sister in Kiswahili and tell them what we want,” orders the man.
“Siz I have been kidnapped and they want money. Please send money,” says Hasfa before the video ends.
Hasfa was last seen in Kamukunji with her friend going into a shop, according to a CCTV footage.
Her friend who was also kidnapped was later set free.
On Thursday, DCI detectives traced the signal of the mobile phones that were being used to demand for ransom from Hasfa’s parents to Kayole.
A manhunt was launched, but instead of getting the kidnappers, police stumbled on a body of an unknown man in a river.
The hunt for Hasfa’s kidnappers is still on. Her kidnapping has captured the attention of the Kenya Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK).
“We strongly condemn the constant attacks on children and abductions of girls and individuals. This is a gross violation of children’s rights,” said CIPK yesterday.
To understand the full scale of how big the children kidnapping industry is, one just needs to walk through Pipeline, Kawangware and Kayole estates in Nairobi. Competing with posters of religious crusades, traditional healers and houses for rent are announcements of lost children by the dozens.
One such poster is of Adjai Ochieng, 14, who was last seen on May 26 around his home area along Muthiora Road, Kawangware 56 in Nairobi.
“He was last seen wearing blue track pants and a blue long sleeve tshirt. He is a pupil at Bethany Joy Academy,” says the poster.
In Kayole, Charles Magubo has been missing since May 26. The boy, 11, was last seen wearing red trousers and a red jacket. “He is a pupil at Kifaru Primary School,” says the poster.
In Nairobi, police are still looking for two people, a man and a woman who last month took 10-year-old Michelle Jennifer to Mama Lucy Hospital, when she was already dead. The girl failed to return home from a school in Kayole where she was studying prompting a search.
The International Centre for Exploited and Missing Children (ICMEC) says at least eight million children go missing every year globally, which translates to 22,000 cases each day.
A 2019 report by the National Crime and Research Centre, lists Kenya at 17 out of 19 as countries in the world where child kidnappings are rampant. In East Africa, Kenya is only second to lawless Somalia in the rate of kidnappings.
The US Department of State profiles Kenya as a tier-two source, transist point and destination for child trafficking. Its Counter Trafficking Data shows that one in six victims trafficked in Kenya is a child.
According to data from Missing Child Kenya, 69 children were reported missing between March and May this year. With the police practice that missing person reports are acted upon after 48 hours, Penelope Wanjiku, a senior child protection officer at Child Welfare Society of Kenya, a government agency, says no time should be wasted if it is a child.
“You better take action sooner,” advices Ms Wanjiku. “Let parents not just sit and wait for the 48 hours.”
As a precaution, Ms Wanjiku advises parents to always take note of where their children are and what they are doing.
“It’s also important for parents to keep updated photos of their children, such that if you have a child who is five years old, you have photos of how the child looks like when they are five. Don’t just keep photos of when the child was two years old,” she says.