EL ADDE, SOMALIA. January 15. 0500 hours. In a clump of bushes 150 kilometres west of Mogadishu, a company of Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers is waking up to another day of war against al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate whose insurgency has destabilised Somalia for a generation.
It has rained a bit and the chirring insects are falling silent. Suddenly the soldiers’ communication goes down. And, before anybody has had time to figure out the problem, three explosive-laden vehicles manned by suicide bombers blast a path into camp. Waves of bearded militants pour through on open pick-up trucks. With the help of two anti-aircraft guns, they tear through the camp with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.
The fighting goes on for nine hours.
By the end of the day more than a hundred KDF soldiers have died, taking down with them many more terrorists. The badly wounded captives are taken as human shields.
Back in the relative safety of Nairobi the disaster was fuel for growing feeling that Kenyan troops should withdraw from the forsaken heartland of Somalia. There were the usual reports on the TV news of funerals across Kenya, the usual speeches of reassurance and condolence from the generals and the politicians.
But valour of these KDF soldiers received its ultimate confirmation from al-Shabaab itself.
A few days ago, Al-Shabaab released a propaganda video featuring their attack which had been filmed by one of the insurgents late in the battle. Kenyan media houses have withheld the video out of consideration for the families of the dead soldiers. But they have published a few vivid anecdotes drawn.
Perhaps the most dramatic is that of a lone soldier. With the camp overrun and burning around him, he pops out of the armoured personnel carrier which he has used to mow down several militants. Shrouded in smoke, he looks around at the devastation. Then he shakes his head, as if moved by pity, at the taunts of the raucous militants who are offering him the option of surrender. He continues to stare at them.
For a few seconds, they watch him like crows. Then they fire. The first bullet doesn’t take him down and he stands defiant as they pump more bullets into him until he staggers back into his burning vehicle. As Kenya’s Daily Nation says, “he remains the tragic but valiant poster boy of the Kenyan mission at El-Adde.”
The al-Shabaab cameraman interviews some of the captives as well. As they stare death in the face, their thoughts are with their families. They are oblivious to what their sneering captors might think. Private EO, who is bleeding to death without medical attention, propped up against the mud wall of a hut, refers to his daughter as his angel and asks the government to take care of his family. He doesn’t ask to be freed. He knows it’s too late for that.
Another soldier, Private M, surrounded by heavily armed militants on a dusty track in the middle of nowhere, stares straight into the camera and asks the Kenyan President to take care of his family and those of his fallen comrades.
“Can I add something?” he says. But then he corrects himself. “I can add anything I want,” he add, ignoring his captors. “I can add anything. I want to tell my family not to expect me back.”
In an age when the family is under relentless attack, an attack more barbaric and vicious than El Adde, it is heart-warming to learn that, even with all hope gone, these men weren’t willing to lose that bigger battle, that of fending for their own. They didn’t forget who they were or where they came from. It adds more to their valour than facing the enemy’s bullets.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.