Monday, October 22, 2012
Special forces storm into an unspecified target in Somalia. Photo/FILE
On January 22, 2012, Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers were sent to liberate Hoosingo, a town in south Somalia. The force was expected to link up with Somalia’s Transitional Federation Forces (TFG) for the task.
At 2200 hours, the officer commanding the team radioed that his men had run into an Al-Shabaab ambush. A two-hour battle ensued.
Lt Col Jeff Nyaga expected the worst.
“I was told that we had lost two officers,” he recalls.
That day was the saddest for the troops since rolling into Somalia in October 2011. The slain officers, Lt Edward Juma Okoto and Lt Kevin Anamunyi Webi, were popular with the troops.
A month before his deployment, Lt Okoto had married in a ceremony attended by a number of those he was serving with. Photographs from his wedding and the long calls he used to make to his newly-wedded wife, Doreen Magak were talked about in the long and boring nights in the Somali bushes.
Other than his friendliness, Lt Webi was the best officer cadet in leadership and command and winner of the Sword of Honour during the 2009 military graduation.
The deaths left the soldiers with many questions. One of the most disturbed was their commander, Lt Col Nyaga. It was a test of his leadership because the lives of all his men depended on him.
“Sir, we have lost our colleagues but we have to accomplish the mission at hand. We have to liberate Hoosingo,” he recalled one of his men telling him.
By the time he arrived at the scene to pick up the bodies, the soldiers were eager to fight.
“They did not want to stop,” Lt Col Nyaga told DN2.
After the deaths of the two officers, two others were deployed from the Eldoret barracks to command the men from Nanyuki.
The attack delayed the liberation of Hoosingo, but it eventually fell.
Hoosingo would prove to be one difficult task for the Kenyan troops.
Before the start of April, deployment had resulted in the reduction of men at the Hoosingo base. Unknown to KDF, the enemy was monitoring its movements.
According to captured Al-Shabaab fighters, the militia had secretly organised a force to wipe out the Kenyans. Observers would see hundreds of Al-Shabaab fighters approaching. Reports of other movements farther afield were heard.
The Kenyans were about to be slaughtered. They were outnumbered, had little ammunition and, it being a rainy season, it was both difficult to escape and tricky for reinforcements to be brought in.
However, reinforcements arrived at the KDF military base on April 4. Major Father Makau, the military chaplain and first clergyman to be deployed to the front line, was cracking jokes to boost the morale of the troops when the enemy stuck.
“Decisions had to be made quickly,” recalls Major Father Makau.
The shooting was so rapid and from all directions. Even the most battle-hardened soldier would have lost his cool. Major Father Makau remembers reminding Lt Col Nyaga to fix his boot straps.
For a commander who always insisted on his men being dressed in full combat gear, the untied shoes were a revelation of the heat he was under at that moment. The man of God had to offer more than just spiritual nourishment; he had to be involved in the fighting to beat back the enemy.
After the first two hours, Major Father Makau told Lt Col Nyaga that the ammunition was running out.
“I called my second in command and told him to deploy anyone, including the cooks, for reinforcement and to move supplies from Dobley (sector headquarters) to Hoosingo,” Lt Col Nyaga recalled during KDF day celebrations last week. Lt Col Nyaga also turned to his friend and former training colleague at the Kenya Military Academy, Lt Col Omenda for aerial support.
Lt Col Omenda, the pilot of a helicopter gunship, made a brave decision that would have cost him his job if anything had gone wrong.
Although the gunship was required to have at least one fighter helicopter for support and protection, Lt Col Omenda decided to fly in alone. With about 100 men staring death in the face, there was no time to think about job security.
“That single air strike changed the battle. That was the turning point for Operation Linda Nchi,” Lt Col Nyaga said.
In what is now known as the battle for Hoosingo, about 100 KDF men fought an estimated 500 to 800 Al-Shabaab fighters. “We shot, shot, and shot until we got tired. The more we wounded, the more reinforcements they brought in,” remembers Major Father Makau.
The battle lasted six hours and 20 minutes and almost 400 Al-Shabaab fighters were buried in the next days.
“The stench of death was overwhelming,” said a private.
KDF did not suffer any casualties in that battle except for an armoured personal carrier that had an accident on the way to Hoosingo, injuring a few men.
The other serious challenge for KDF was in Tabda, when the KDF patrol base came under machine gun fire and mortar attack. The base was a kilometre from the town with a population of 600.
If the Kenyan troops had responded, the civilian casualties would have been unacceptably high. The Kenyan military says the means used to end the attack is classified.
From Tabda, the troops moved to liberate Xayo, then Afmadow town in a largely bloodless battle.
After leaving Afmadow and on the way to liberate Kismayu, KDF suffered the single greatest loss on Somali soil during fighting at Miido town.
The fight the following morning, four KDF men died. Two are still missing.
DISPATCHES FROM WAR
It is a cold morning at Tabda. Old military fatigues cover a shack where a senior officer is bathing. A private has almost given up waiting for his boss to get out of the bathroom. Suddenly the private shouts “Mortar! mortar! mortar!”
Commissioned officers having a cup of tea under a tree rush to the handakis, the ditches.
By the time the private arrives in his small ditch, he finds his panting senior already there.
KDF soldiers recount such stories to brighten their days in Somalia as they struggle with loneliness, boredom, and fear.
The deployment has tested their emotional muscle and that of their families. They are linked by the fragile thread of the Internet and cell phones to keep in touch with their families.
Many of the soldiers went to the battle front before putting their affairs in order.
Almost all the soldiers DN2 interviewed ahead of the fall of Afmadow said they had not written a will.
But the stories of “this jungle”, as our handler Captain Hamisi puts it, can bury the fears, kill the loneliness, and make the uncomfortable appear interesting.
In the trenches, nights punctuated by the laughter of hyenas and the buzz of mosquitoes can be unbearably cold, the days blazingly hot.
The troops are expected to walk around in full combat gear and carrying new American M4 light automatic rifles. Others have the more familiar G3.
One of the units is said to have been reluctant to use the American weapon fearing that it was less powerful.
Some of the camps, especially those located in the southern sector, have been invaded by scorpions. But soldiers told us that scorpions were not as worrying as poisonous spiders.
We observed that there was always a soldier on the lookout for nocturnal noisemakers, fellows who want to shower while others are sleeping, thus ruining valuable resting time.
The soldiers sleep in foxholes with their guns at the ready. A few hyenas in search for food have soaked up bullets for venturing too close to the foxholes.
Troops keep in touch with their families through Hormuud Telecom, a local mobile telephony provider.
Interestingly, Somalia has good mobile network services run by individuals.
“When we want to take over a town and we fear that Al-Shabaab spies and informers will use mobile phones to inform on our moves, we ask the mobile telephony operator to switch off the network or we bomb it,” an officer offers.
Mobile phones are the main source of entertainment for the soldiers. Others have iPads. And, as you must have guessed, there is always a long queue to charge the gadgets when the generator is switched on. Seniors charge first.
Rations are dished out as the men advance during operations. Once the defensive positions have been established, a team prepares meals.