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Life on the run

13 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 third installment of Omwa Ombara’s God’s Child on the Run, a fictionalized account of her experiences recalls how her life was disrupted by the call from ICC investigators leading to security agents stalking her every move.

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

Read the second installment here: https://tinyurl.com/yymzpb8s

By Omwa Ombara

I had decided to meet Donata, but I would explain to her that it would be against media ethics to be a witness. Still, I would give her any useful information she needed.

Donata called a week later on a Sunday evening, and I knew then that things were getting serious. She had a friendly, soft voice and kindly queried why I had stood her up.

I explained to her how my niece’s dog Simba had messed up my phone and although she sounded shocked at my naive excuse, we simply laughed it off. I was growing fond of Donata and I wanted to cooperate with her. I apologized for having kept her waiting and she quickly brushed it off rather graciously. I wanted to find a way of telling her what had transpired, but I was not sure of who was listening in on our conversation. I did not trust her yet.

She was already at the Hague from Nairobi and informed me of her busy schedule. She promised she would be back the following Sunday.

“If I cannot make it, I will send two of my colleagues in Nairobi to meet you,” she said.

“They are welcome, although I would have preferred to meet you,” I said.

I knew Donata genuinely had a busy schedule. That week, Luis Ocampo— the outgoing chief prosecutor at the Hague—was to visit Kenya and introduce the new prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to the Kenyan government.

Some members of Parliament had threatened to disrupt the visit, and for some reason (perhaps related to the threat), the visit had been postponed. Ocampo had instead thanked Kenyans on a live television address for the warm reception and support he had received and for the opportunity they had given him to serve them.

The turn of events was not surprising. Some Kenyan politicians had threatened to strip naked if some of the ICC suspects were indicted. Those whose homes have been infested with bedbugs know that when an exterminator takes over, the bedbugs are smashed to smithereens, never to bite, suck your blood again or cause sleepless nights. Bensouda stood before the social media court of justice as the last resort accused of being a dangerous exterminator after promising to come after other politicians, when she was done with Ruto and Sang. I knew the government was supporting the ICC indictees, had offered to pay their legal fees and had allegedly refused to cooperate with the prosecutors in gathering evidence despite Kenya being a signatory to the Rome Statute, which created the ICC.

The Government had been on urgent shuttle diplomacy around the world, particularly the Africa Union and the UN Security Council for the deferral of these cases from the Hague. It tried to bring the trials “back home.” Kenyan parliament had voted several times against a local tribunal using the now infamous quote “Don’t be vague, go to the Hague.”

They now wanted to have their cake and eat it. At the initial stages of the pre-trial, the same government had offered to pay legal fees for the suspects and to get them some of the best lawyers in the world.
There was no sympathy, not a single word for the victims and no indication whether the government felt anything for them. The hypocrisy and the dishonesty of politicians remained a talent no one could take away from them.

The trial conference for the four Kenyan ICC suspects was starting soon after Donata’s call. I called my friend Thor in Belgium and informed him of what was going on. I tried to email him a copy of the story “Dirty Hands,” which Donata had talked about in her call but he told me his email had been hacked. He advised me to get in touch with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for advice.

The same uniformed men followed me when I went to the kiosk to ask the Mama Mboga if I could use her phone. They made no attempt to hide and at one point, I felt like they wanted me to know they were watching me. As the two security agents walked behind me, I started sweating profusely. I thought I would get shot in the back. One image after another of prominent Kenyans who had disappeared only to be found dead came to my mind. These deaths had been linked to state agents, but no evidence had been found. I saw a picture of the late Nyandarua MP, J. M. Kariuki, whose body had been found in the thickets of Ngong Forest. Then I saw another horrid picture of the charred remains of the late former minister for Foreign Affairs, Robert Ouko, the brilliant diplomat whose remains had been traced to the foot of Got Alila Hills in Koru, Nyanza. His body, found by a herdsman called Shikuku, had been burned beyond recognition in what appeared to be some sort of chemical attack.

A government pathologist’s report had implied that the late minister had shot himself and then burned his own body by douching it in acid! Painful images of Oscar Kingara killed on State House Road tore my heart. I was not prominent. I was just a mere journalist seeking for the truth with a mighty sword—the pen. But the fact that the ICC had approached me regarding an indictee put me in such a precarious situation that I saw images of myself shot dead and disposed of in a forest. I was perceived to have powerful information that could put suspects behind bars for years.

I disappeared into the market at the Kibera junction and bought mobile phone recharge cards at the Kengen petrol station. I was too afraid to go back to my house. I took my time window-shopping inside the market until it got dark.

It was becoming my new way of life. I felt intimidated. I followed a different path back to my house, loaded my modem in one of the computers at my work station and informed CPJ by Skype that I was still being followed. I panicked. I tried to seek a visa from the Belgian embassy. After calling Thor through a friend’s number, he had invited me to go over and stay at his place until things cooled down. But the embassy needed corroboration from the ICC that they had indeed approached me. So they emailed the ICC and asked me to hold on. An email response from the ICC denying that they knew me or had even tried to get in touch with me was sent back. Mr. Dan Desmadryl, the consular, sent me a curt email denying me a visa and asked me to explain that I was not lying!

This convinced me more than ever at that time that Donata was a fake and did not actually exist.

My family and I were therefore very concerned that I was now in the middle of a very dangerous internal and international criminal and political affair affecting the two most powerful politicians in the country. I was very fearful for my life, and I did not know what to do. I was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Tom Rhodes, the CPJ contact person for Eastern Africa, advised me to leave my house immediately and move in with a friend, not a relative or any family member.

I further consulted several human rights organizations to access safe houses. I called my taxi man Nderitu in the morning, picked my bag and left the house. I was on the run. I passed by my brother Steve’s office, dumped my laptop and phone with him, and begged him to throw them in the nearest dustbin.

“It’s easy to locate anyone using the laptop and phone. It would be safe for me if you threw them away as I make my escape,” I told him.

Nderitu then dropped me somewhere along River Road, in Nairobi’s downtown, where I made my next move. He was my most trusted driver who dropped and picked me from work when I was a sub-editing consultant at African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWC) on Ngong Road.

Thus began my life as a fugitive in my own country. I did not know where to go. My genuine friends had always been within the family—apart from one or two people. I had hoped to move in with my friend Joan, but when I passed by her office, she told me the situation was too dangerous and she did not want to get involved. “I am a public figure, you know, and everyone knows I am your closest friend. It is my house they will come to look for you first.” She gave me Kshs 1,000 and wished me well.

She was philosophical and I understood her. It was not her. It was the fear of the Hague. The fear of the Hague was real. According to the Hansard, some members of Parliament had confessed to having sleepless nights because they were having dreams that they were in Ocampo’s list, which he was about to release before the pre-trials. One member of Parliament had told the speaker that she had skipped Parliament several times due to lack of sleep over Hague matters. She claimed she had dreamt that she was in Ocampo’s list of suspects and that her dreams often turned out to be true! The people whose help I sought did not believe my story. This hurt me deeply. It was as if I was the only sane one and everyone around me was mad. Or they were all sane and I was mad.

I had my house rent and an additional Kshs 2,000 my brother had given me. I walked quickly down River Road and found a bus headed to Mombasa. Without a second thought, I jumped into the bus and paid Sh900 for the ticket. It was 1:00 p.m., and the rain was falling heavily outside. The bus left for Mombasa at 8:00 p.m. My new life had begun.

It was painful when those you held in high esteem did not believe you. I had approached friends and family to alert them my life was in danger, but they dismissed it all as a figment of my fertile imagination. Everywhere I sought help, I got treated as a crazy woman.

The stigma of being a journalist also hit hard. “You know you are a journalist and capable of creating any story you want. What a fantastic story. Why don’t you do a film?” my friend Mary mocked me.

People do not trust journalists. “You are our daughter, but we are sorry we cannot trust you because you are a journalist. Journalists are trained to lie. We see them on television every day adding spice to the facts. Exaggeration is their tool of trade. Are you not the same person who once told us that you were taught at the School of Journalism that a journalist should not have a soul?” relatives frankly told me. These remarks from my relatives and some members of my immediate family deeply hurt me.

I contacted two old friends and asked them if they could give me temporary accommodation. One said she was travelling to Nairobi for a seminar while the other said his wife was visiting with her sister and mother-in-law, so it was not possible.

My attempts to get accommodation from my old friends had hit a rock. It seemed that I was not good at choosing friends. If a friend had approached me with a similar situation, I would have taken the risk. I had done it before. I had taken friends into my house when they had nowhere to stay. But again, this was no ordinary case . . . few people wanted to get entangled with state agents or ICC matters.

I saw fear in their eyes, and I understood.
***
I stayed in Mombasa for only ten days after having found lodging in a cheap hotel.

I was holed up in my room for the next nine days, moving between my bed and the bathroom.

On the tenth day, I looked for a cyber cafe on Moi Avenue and tried to get online and speak with Thor, but I could not get through. I tried Tom Rhodes’s email; I could not get through either. Two hours after I left the cyber, I was shocked to see two state security agents pacing up and down Moi Avenue. I panicked. They had tracked me through the internet. They knew I was in Mombasa. I crossed the road and walked towards Mombasa Village. They seemed not to have recognized me as I was in a burka and had worn huge dark goggles. But I was shaken.

I waited until dark then moved back to my hotel. I packed my belongings and checked out. A red tuk-tuk had just dropped a passenger, and I waved it down.

“Wapi?” Where to? “Mwembe Tayari.”

I found a bus leaving for Nairobi. I jumped into it. I paid Kshs 900 and listened to taarab drifting softly from the loudspeakers. I was back to square one.

***
I arrived in my house on Joseph Kang’ethe road at 5:00 a.m. I got into the house through the back window, hoping against hope that nobody had seen me.

There was no food in my house except for sugar and coffee. I had no intentions of going to the shop or exposing myself. For a week, I survived on black coffee, yet I did not feel hungry. I had a working station in the house and an extra modem. I threw caution to the wind and went on the internet. I could not access my old mail so I opened a new account and sent mail to Thor and Tom Rhodes, informing them I was okay and just indoors.

The following morning at about 9:00 a.m., I saw a white car parked outside my house with three men inside. The car was parked sideways and not in the usual way facing the house. My instincts told me this was strange. I peered through the curtains and watched the men park there the whole day. They looked up toward my house, but they did not come out. They seemed busy on their phones. One pulled down the window, and I recognized him—the same state agent who had followed me to the shopping center at Nakumatt Prestige the day I was to meet Donata. What a fool I was! Why had I accessed the internet from my house? They had traced me and had now come for me. I remembered the assassination of popular politician J. M. Kariuki and of Oscar Kamau Kingara and John Paul Oulu (human rights defenders), shot at point-blank range through their car window near University of Nairobi. Witnesses said Kingara was shot four times in the head and Oulu three times. The two men who shot them then jumped into their car and sped off toward the city center. An eyewitness at the scene was also shot in the leg and was later taken away from the scene by policemen. I remembered the ICC witness Maina Diambo, shot on Luthuli Avenue a year earlier. I saw the same happening to me. I went to the kitchen window and saw my neighbor throwing rubbish in the common incinerator.

I had briefed her about what was happening, and she kept watch for me. The white car drove away at top speed, and she alerted me they had left. “I know they will be back. I have to leave now,” I told her as I left in a huff. I took a taxi to the house of my sister Catherine* in Kileleshwa. She welcomed me with open arms and hid me in her guest room for two weeks. Catherine contacted one human rights group and that is how I found myself in my first safe house. If it was not for the kindness and concern I got from Catherine and my other siblings in Nairobi, I cannot imagine what would have happened to me.

I was later moved from one safe location to another, being transferred from one car to another, sometimes four times a day for security purposes and from one part of the country to another. Sometimes when a car followed us, I would be moved to the boot of a car and covered with a blanket. My first safe house was full of residents but my last one was isolated as I lived alone for about seven months.

At the first safe house, I did not bother to watch TV or read newspapers. Life had taught me so many lessons—that I could survive without TV and newspapers. I could survive without a meal, a mobile phone, and internet. I was still alive although I had not accessed my Facebook or Twitter or WordPress accounts for a long while.

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