1,133 is not just a number

The Hague

A call from The Hague

9 May 2019 - 09:05

Three years after the last Kenya cases at the International Criminal Court were terminated for lack of sufficient evidence, many questions remain about what happened to the witnesses who changed or disowned their testimony. The second installment of Omwa Ombara’s God’s Child on the Run, a fictionalized account of her experiences recalls how she was received when reporting threats to her life to Kenya’s criminal investigations officers. She had visited the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in the company of officials of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, but it would turn out to be more complicated than just statement taking.

Read first installment here: https://tinyurl.com/y6c9b5x6

By Omwa Ombara

My life was in danger. The CID officer who recorded my statement was so terrified that he refused to append his name to my statement, claiming he did not want to be associated with The Hague.

“My children are still young, and I want to retire in peace. I do not want to be summoned to The Hague to explain your statement,” he told us.

The police officer was seven-foot tall, dark, and sprightly. He tried to be as brave, but his whole body shook; his fingers trembled. He paused in between to wipe off the involuntary sweat from the palm of his moist hands with his faded-blue tie. At times, he walked out of the room to take a quick breath of fresh air before coming in to continue. He glanced over his shoulder now and then as if The Hague’s eyes were watching his every step, as if someone could snatch him from his seat in an instant and snuff the life out of him. Three human rights officers who had accompanied me to the police station seemed familiar with handling dangerous cases. They waited patiently until the interview was done and then handed me over to the protection officers at my safe house.

Strange people had followed me everywhere, hanging around my flat since the day Donata called me.

My phone was tapped then later blocked. I could not make or receive any calls. All the contacts in my phone and all messages were deleted. My emails were hacked, and I was getting strange emails sent from [me] to myself. One email informed me that I had been awarded a full scholarship offered to journalists who had been traumatized after covering PEV by Colombia University. Apparently, I had sent myself this letter; I was baffled. I had not heard of such a program, let alone applied for it.

I had covered PEV in Coast Province, where I was a bureau chief with a local newspaper. I had followed various politicians, especially the presidential candidates Mwai Kibaki, Raila Odinga, and Kalonzo Musyoka, through their political campaigns. I had covered First Lady Lucy Kibaki in Lamu as she campaigned for her husband and bragged that he was the most intelligent man in the country, having obtained first class honors in economics from the prestigious Makerere University in Uganda.

I had watched in horror as journalists fought each other in the office in support of their preferred candidates. I listened in horror as politicians made dangerous remarks and threatened to clear all madoadoa (spots) from their midst, but I had not invited myself to Colombia University for a degree in PEV trauma.

Donata wanted to meet me and discuss some issues regarding post-election violence and the role of certain politicians in the ensuing chaos. She told me the International Criminal Court had gathered information from local media on the goings on in Kenya prior to and after elections and she wished to chat with me.

I asked Donata who had given her my contacts, but she did not disclose her source. She merely said, “Media sources.”

In my journalism career, spanning over 10 years, disclosing one’s source was never an option. Many journalists had gone to jail for failing to disclose a source. It was a matter of honor, a matter of media ethics.

Revealing a source, especially a whistle-blower, was betrayal of the highest order. Not only would you lose the trust bestowed upon you, but colleagues would despise you.

Although she declined to reveal her source, Donata sounded friendly, and I liked her. She inquired if I could pay a visit to their offices. I had guests, so I could not leave.

“It’s out of my way, and I am busy now,” I told her.
“Where are you? I can come right where you are,” she said. “Okay, come to Ngong Road, Nakumatt Prestige, Swahili Plate, in about an hour!” I told her.
“All right, I am on my way.”

Swahili Plate, a seven-minute walk from my house, was my favourite place for authentic, mouth-watering coastal pilau and biryani dishes. Being a regular customer, the staff knew me well. I felt safe meeting Donata there.

When Donata’s call first came through, my sister Susana*, who had been listening to the conversation keenly, was aghast. She had just come back home after her two-year study in the Netherlands. She had arrived in Nairobi a day earlier and had come to see me. Susana was accompanied by our niece Viola* (12) and Viola’s dog, Simba, which she had received as a birthday gift.

“You must be shrewd,” Susana advised. It was obvious she had eavesdropped on our conversation. She is six years older than I, and hers was always the voice of reason. “How can you even tell the person calling you is from The Hague? You may go there and get shot. Be wise, ask the lady to give you her credentials on email as you consult further,” she warned.

I had intended to go and meet Donata. She had indicated during our brief conversation that the court had thoroughly scrutinized media reports and wanted to discuss some articles. The line was not very clear, and Donata and I kept calling each other back and forth until she finally called from an audible line.

But my sister Susana’s logic stopped me dead in my tracks. I had not looked at the whole issue holistically. What if this was not Donata but a trickster? Was I safe? Was it wise to meet her at a public place?

“The Hague is an international court. They cannot just call you like that. It’s probably someone playing a prank—probably one of your friends or colleagues pretending to be a white woman. They are very professional. Anyway, to get a second opinion, just call Seraphine* and hear what she must say,” Susana advised.

Seraphine is my other sister, a practicing lawyer who is always willing to give relatives free legal advice. We often take advantage of her whenever we need legal advice.

She is my late Baba reincarnated. Seraphine immediately dismissed the matter. “Ignore the call for now,” she said. “If she is really from The Hague and really needs to see you, she will definitely look for you again. For now, you had better switch off the phone so that, whoever she is, she may not reach you.”

“Are you sure you really want to be a witness? Are you sure you know what you are getting into? Being a witness is a full-time job, you know!”

As I consulted Seraphine over the phone, Susana had already called my Mama and reported what had transpired. As soon as I finished with Seraphine, my Mama called.

“My daughter, what is this I am hearing? I understand you have evidence against The Hague suspects. And you are supposed to be a witness? Be very careful. You know these people are very powerful and the government is on their side. Think very carefully over the matter, but if I were you, I would keep a very safe distance,” my Mama advised.

She is wise, elderly, and in her 80s. Why was everybody so cautious, so negative about this meeting? I wondered.

Deep in my heart, I really wanted to meet Donata and hear what she had to say. I hated unfinished business, and I wanted this whole Donata stuff over and done with.

I like to keep my word. I really felt bad that Donata was probably waiting at the Swahili Plate as agreed. To ensure I did not leave immediately, Susana, who had been in a hurry to leave before Donata’s call, now seemed to take her sweet time, offering to clear the dishes after lunch.

No sooner had I finished talking to my Mama than my younger brother Steve*, a banker, called.

“I hear Ocampo himself has called you and asked you to cooperate with the ICC court. Please switch off your phone immediately and do not respond to any strange numbers. Keep off trouble,” he advised.

News travels fast, especially within a large family. And usually by the time word goes around and comes back, it is not likely to be in the original form in which it was told, meant, or intended.

On the surface, I pretended to take advice from my family, but my journalistic instincts got the better of me. I told myself that as soon as my sister, niece, and Simba—the friendly dog—left, I could slip into the Swahili Plate and meet Donata. But as fate would have it, I never got to meet her.

I walked over to the Nakumatt Prestige to meet Donata. I left my home 15 minutes to 1:00 pm. and walked on the sidewalk to the meeting place. At an intersection of Mugo Kibiru Road, I passed two intelligence officers standing. They stared at me with expressionless faces. My mind was deep in thought, so I paid them little attention. I walked on without giving it a thought.

As I continued the walk, I noticed that the two men I had just passed were walking hurriedly behind me. I did not think anything of it. I continued walking and soon arrived at the mall, where I entered the supermarket. The men were now trailing me on different aisles. I escaped from the supermarket and entered an adjacent cafe and sat down. They also entered the cyber cafe and sat . I ordered a glass of fresh passion juice. They did the same. I left them sitting down and rushed into a restaurant on the ground floor. I sat on an empty seat at the restaurant, catching my breath. The two officers soon found me and sat about two tables away from me.

I was terribly afraid. They were both dressed in ill-fitting, over- washed navy-blue suits, bright-blue shirts and navy-blue ties. I confirmed they were state security agents, probably from the intelligence services because of what they wore — a navy-blue suit with a badge on the left breast pocket of the suit jacket. The badge had a coat of arms and a Kenyan flag. Their coats had lapels on the left side with the coat of arms and the Kenyan flag. I had become truly alarmed at this point.

I knew they were the dreaded state security agents, not only by the way they were dressed but also by their clean-shaven heads. From the nature of my work, I had seen state security agents when I covered presidential or state functions or election campaigns of senior government ministers, so I had no doubt in my mind who these people were. I had seen these people running after the president’s car at every presidential function pushing people out of the way. Sometimes they pushed journalists who covered presidential functions and at times even broke their cameras.

I knew Donata was upstairs, waiting for me. She had described herself and asked me to look out for an elderly white woman carrying a pink handbag. I had also described myself to her as a slim, tall, dark lady with short hair. The sound of imaginary gunshots triggered by fear rang in my brain.

I became so terrified that I exited the mall and never got to meet Donata. I was not sure whether Donata was alone or whether these people were part of her plan to have me kidnapped. The mall was not crowded as it would be around that time, and it was obvious that the state security agents were not trying to hide the fact that they were trying to follow me. I called my taxi driver, Ndung’u Nderitu, on my cell phone and told him to pick me up at the entrance in about three minutes. My task was now to escape from both Donata and these agents. My heart was pumping like a posho mill engine. I pretended not to be in a hurry to leave, but after about two and a half minutes, I abruptly got up and left. I did not look back to see if I was being followed.

At the entrance of the Nakumatt Supermarket, Nderitu was just pulling into the pickup area. I jumped into the back of the taxi, and he pulled out and into Ngong Road. I told him there were strange men following me and to lose them if he saw them trailing us. He told me that he saw them through the rear view standing by the entrance, but they did not try to follow us.

The taxi driver made several turns to make sure nobody was following us. We dodged the heavy traffic now piling up on Ngong Road from the City Mortuary, Nairobi Baptist Church, Daystar University, China Centre and Yaya Centre junction toward Adams Arcade. He drove me round and round past Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Uchumi Supermarket, and Moi Nairobi Girls High School. We drove around Nairobi for several hours before returning home.

By then, I was deeply worried. Who were these people following me and why immediately after Donata’s call? Was it a mere coincidence? Were they the ones who had called? Did Donata really exist? Was I dreaming? What was all this? It felt like a bad dream, like the day my Baba and my Mama were involved in a road accident. I could not believe that my loving Baba had died on the spot and my Mama and sister were in a coma with broken limbs. It still hurts decades later that such a terrible dream had turned out to be true.

Back in my house, it was about 7:00 pm. I drew the curtains but decided not to switch on the lights. I mixed some hot water from the flask on my study table with two teaspoons of sugar and two tea- spoons of coffee to make it strong. I was exhausted, but sleep was the last thing on my mind. I did not take my medication.

I called my friend Otsieno Namwaya to find out if he knew of any ICC investigation of journalists going on in the country. Namwaya worked with the Kofi Annan mediation team on long-term reform and was a close friend.

But he did not pick up his phone. I breathed deeply, and then decided to ignore the whole situation. “This can’t be. I’m probably dreaming,” I told myself. “None of this is happening. It happens only in movies and newspapers. Calm down. Get real,” I kept telling myself. I pinched myself painfully on my wrist until I bled to ensure that it was I, Omwa, going through this strange experience.

I went to bed early without switching on the lights. I pushed the huge study table against the door—just in case, you never know. I hoped that by the time I woke up in the morning, all would be well and the dream would be over. I tossed over and over in bed the whole night like a mahamri in hot oil. It was a cold May, and the cold weather in Nairobi had set in earlier than expected. But I sweated profusely and kicked off the warm pink duvet. I did not sleep that night. And all was not well.

I had switched off my phone before going to bed the previous night. After a serious pep talk to myself, I decided to switch on my phone and take the bull by its horns. I checked the time on the wall; it was 5:00 am. Two short text messages beeped on my phone. One was from Donata, and it said, “We are still waiting at the Swahili Plate.” She must have sent it at about 3:00 pm the day before. The second one was from Otsieno Namwaya. “I called you back, but your phone was off. Please get in touch.”

I waited till 8:00 am. then called Namwaya.

“I got a strange call from a woman claiming to be an ICC investigator, and I was terrified. That is why I had switched off my phone,” I explained. That was when Otsieno Namwaya reminded me of a story way back in 2007, in which I had confessed to a confrontation I had with one of The Hague 4 suspects whose agent wanted to corrupt me with Sh2 million. It was now 2012, and my mind was foggy over this issue that had happened five years back.

“It is to do with Mr Ruto. Do you remember after you had a situation with him and after this story was published you received threats from strange persons? That is what The Hague wants to discuss with you,” Namwaya explained.

There were spontaneous riots in Mombasa regarding the elections results, but not any deaths of non-coastal communities that I knew of. There were forcible evictions of Kenyans who allegedly belonged to PNU parties or who because being Kikuyu or Kamba were believed to have voted for Kibaki. Angry mobs flushed them out of their homes and shops, but after intervention by police and sober neighbours, everyone was allowed back to their homes. One of those threatened by a mob was a journalist in my office, whom I helped sneak out of the Coast after his house was attacked. Coast was not a hotspot for post-election violence, like Naivasha, Kisumu, Nakuru, and Eldoret. I did not understand why Namwaya had given my name to the ICC as a potential witness.

“It is true that the call is from ICC. In fact, I am the one who gave them your contacts. You remember the story I interviewed you over called ‘Dirty Hands’? I mean the investigative story on corruption in the media. You remember how strangers threatened you after the story was published in eXpression Today? Anyway, don’t worry. You are not the only one ICC is investigating. They have already talked to other journalists, and I know some who have agreed to be witnesses but under pseudonyms,” Namwaya explained. His tirade did not console me.

“Well, Otsieno, why didn’t you alert me or tell me to expect their call? You should have at least called and asked me if I was willing to talk to them,” I chided him.

He was unapologetic. “Well, there is no need for you to fuss. They just want to have a general chat with you,” he replied.

“Anyway, I am not happy about the ambush, but since it’s already done, I will meet them. I already ‘bounced’ [missed] their meeting.

“Should they get in touch with you, ask them to feel free to call me,” I said.

“I do not have Donata’s number, so should she be in touch again, please ask her to call me,” I told Namwaya. “Okay,” Namwaya said.

Get Omwa Ombara’s God's Child on the Run here: https://tinyurl.com/y67ok6f3



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