For 12 agonising months, they lived in captivity, surviving on wild herbs, boiled sorghum, and “busaa” in a remote South Sudanese village controlled by heavily armed rebels.
This is the story of seven Kenyans living in a foreign land with no money and limited contact with the outside world.
Moses Ochieng, Samuel Kariuki, Richard Wanyonyi, Nicholas Ochieng, Michael Omondi, Samson Marindi, and Martin Omondi were held in South Sudan by a local supplier who had differences with a Kenyan contractor.
Construction workers Nicholas Ochieng (35), Kariuki (33), Omondi (40), Wanyonyi (56), and Moses Ochieng found themselves in Ariang’, where their year-long suffering, which they blame on their employer, unfolded.
At one point, two of them were arrested and thrown into jail for allegedly stealing construction materials.
The workers were taken to Ariang’ in the Upper Nile State by a Kenyan contractor to build a maternity ward and staff houses for a health facility and were looking forward to well-paying jobs.
The project was to take three months and they were each to make Sh2,500 a day. This translates to nearly Sh72,500 a month.
But the men quickly ran into trouble after a man who supplied construction materials to their boss, Mr Charles Kangode, a Kenyan contractor and a director of CJ Construction Company, took them captive because he had not been paid.
Nicholas Ochieng had only been in Juba for one month when he was approached for the lucrative offer. He took up the job but things started going awry shortly afterwards.
“The writing was on the wall that things were not going to go as planned right from the first month. The project stalled as we waited for more materials to be brought in. And although we were to be paid in phases, our wages never came. Instead, Mr Kangode, through the site manager (Moses Ochieng) kept giving us promises.
“Then in March his (Kangode) contract was suspended after local workers downed their tools to demand pay. The project was also taking longer than planned. That is when we started suffering,” Ochieng said.
Soon a borehole they were relying on for water dried up and they had to walk four hours to another one. And because Kangode was no longer sending money to the site manager, they resorted to begging for food from the local people.
“They gave us hand-milled sorghum flour and some bitter herbs which we ate. Sometimes we boiled the sorghum and ate with busaa - locals here brew a lot of it.”
With no money to survive on and unable to leave the country because the supplier was demanding his pay, they asked Upper Nile Governor Johnson Olony to intervene. And in June Kangode’s contract was renewed by Cordaid International, the organisation behind the project.
“In June, we went back to the site to complete the job. Kangode promised to pay all our dues after the job was finished. He brought two more workers (Michael Omondi and Samson Marindi) to fit the windows and doors and do the paint job.”
But in August, the project stalled again when only the fitting of a few windows and the painting was remaining. Kangode went silent again.
“After a week of waiting, we walked for a whole day to Cordaid’s coordination office in a place called Kodok. Here we were denied entry at the gate and were accused of stealing materials from the site. Again we went back to the governor, who once again intervened and Cordaid allocated us a small room and gave us one bag of sorghum,” said Ochieng
While at Kodok, the civil strife rocking the young nation edged closer to them.
“We heard gunshots at night and when we went out during the day, we could see people pitching tents in markets. We were very afraid,” said Ochieng.
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He recounts that after they moved from the site, the local supplier, Emmanuel Yusuf, asked Governor Olony to place people at the nearby airstrip to ensure that the Kenyans did not leave the country before his dues were paid.
“He held Moses Ochieng, the site manager, hostage in his compound.”
It is during this time that relatives of the captives approached The Standard to appeal for help. After we broke their story mid-December Cordaid, the embassy in Juba, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said efforts had been initiated to help the workers.
The Standard also reached Mr Yusuf and Mr Kangode for comment. The Sudanese supplier confirmed that he was holding the Kenyan workers captive until Sh3 million owed to him by Kangode was paid.
Kangode blamed Moses Ochieng, a cook-turned-site manager, claiming he had sent him money that was squandered.
Eventually, Cordaid paid the supplier Sh1 million in December and Sh2 million last week to have the workers set free.
The organisation also airlifted the workers on Wednesday last week to Juba, where the Kenyan embassy was supposed to helped them return home.
The next day the workers walked into the embassy, thinking that their nightmare was over.
Ambassador Cleland Leshore said emergency travel documents had been processed for them and that he had asked Kangode to send their fare.
As of yesterday, this had yet to happen and the embassy had resorted to appealing to well-wishers to help ferry the workers to Nairobi.