He was jolted out of his sleep by a shove from Gunner Wycliffe Andahi Mmbuka of the 77th Artillery who was incomprehensibly screaming at him.
He cursed himself as he attempted to get his bearing. He couldn’t remember where he was. He was supposed to have been watching over Gunner Andahi but he had drifted off into unconsciousness. Then he saw it flying so low. He could see the pilot looking down at them.
Gnr Andahi, who had been handed a rope tied to the capsized boat to help him stay afloat, because he did not know how to swim, was pointing to the sky.
The two of them had remained together in the shark infested waters while eight of their colleagues, with whom they had been in the boat, had drifted further away with each coming 50 foot waves.
They had been bobbing in the water for eternity. The pain in his chest especially around the diaphragm was unbearable. The cold was getting into his system, slowly shutting off his vital organs. His face and back were scalded by the exposure to the concoction of sea water and fuel from the boat’s engine or the heat of the day long scorching sun .
They had been in the water since 7am when their boat had been hit by a huge wave that tossed them almost one hundred meters high, overturning the vessel.
Luckily, Colonel Fredrick Maisori Wambura had had the mind to switch off the engine before the boat came tumbling back down or they would have been sliced into pieces.
“There it is sir. There it is,” Gnr Andahi kept shouting.
The Gunner had prayed throughout their ordeal as he clung to the capsized boat while Col Wambura stayed afloat next to him.
At one time, Gnr Andahi had told the Col Wambura that he had received a vision in between holding on to the boat in the rough sea that they were not going to die.
As he struggled to look up and through his swollen bloody eyes, the Col saw the plane flying very low towards them. It did a loop and circled them. He tried to remove his life jacket to wave at the plane but he did not have the energy to do so. But the pilot gave them a thumbs-up sign confirming he had spotted them before flying way.
A desperate Gnr Andahi asked him why the plane was flying away but Col Wambura had no energy to respond, although he knew that rescue was finally on the way.
A fresh surge of energy flowed through the Colonel’s body giving him the strength to keep floating. He was relieved that help had arrived at last.
Shortly afterwards, several boats converged around them before Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) crew rescued the two of them. Col Wambura’s concern all along had been the welfare of the nine soldiers he had quickly assembled to pursue the abductors of the 66-year-old French tourist Marie Dedieu from her Kiwayu Safari Village residence in Lamu. The victim was confined to a wheel chair after two years of cancer therapy treatment and required four-hour medication.
After the rescue Gnr Andahi, who was dying of thirst after the 10-hour ordeal, grabbed at the nearest water bottle in an attempt quench his thirst. Though exhausted, the colonel snatched it from the soldier. If the soldier had gulped the water, he would have died then.
They both lost consciousness on the boat and only came to at the hospital before they were airlifted to Nairobi’s Forces Memorial Hospital. The Col had to be sedated after he woke up with a start ripping off the Intravenous injection tubes of vital fluids to control dehydration. He was delirious and was asking about the soldiers he had been with. They were hospitalized for two months before resuming duty.
It had all began in 2011 when the Kenya got concerned about the frequent attacks by the Somalia based Al Shabaab insurgents who attacked government installations and tourists facilities at the Coast and in North Eastern province and kidnapping tourists and security personnel at will.
A team of intelligence officers led by Col Wambura had been dispatched from Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) headquarters in Nairobi and deployed to Lamu area to collect intelligence and coordinate with the regional security teams to thwart such attempts.
The intelligence team was tasked with the responsibility of securing Kenya and their operations covered the vast area from Lamu, Kiunga, Ras Kamboni and Hulugho where the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab insurgents were active.
“Our mission was to secure Kenya and we were tasked with getting timely intelligence that was to be used by multiple security agencies in the country. During that time we collected a lot of intelligence about the insurgents’ desire to cross into Kenya and either kill or abduct tourists,” Col Wambura recalls.
All the intelligence gathered was passed onto senior security officials in Nairobi, who would then make decisions on the next plan of action.
Col Wambura liaised with the local District Security and Intelligence Committee (DSIC) led by the then Lamu District Commissioner Stephen Ikua, whom he expressed concern about the threats posed by Al Shabaab and the intelligence reports that the insurgents were planning to carry out attacks.
Lamu OCPD, a Mr Sigei, and the Coast province Anti Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) boss, a Mr Rop, were also aware of the impending attack and did all they could within their ability to thwart it.
Fifteen police officers were then attached to Kiwayu Safari Village and other adjacent resorts by the DSIC to thwart any such attempts. But overall, most hotels and resorts did not have professional security arrangements other than the usual night guards armed with either clubs or bows and arrows.
However, despite all the efforts, the Al Shabaab militia entered Kenya and killed British author David Tebutt, 58, before kidnapping his wife Judith, 56, on the night of September 10, 2011.
As if that one attack as not enough, intelligence collected from Somalia revealed that Al Shabaab were still keen on conducting similar attacks in Kenya.
Despite being a four-star resort frequented by high profile tourists and senior government officials, Majlis Resort in Peponi did not have a security manager, a situation that worried the intelligence team.
But Col Wambura had another pressing matter worrying him at that time. His wife was not happy with him because his call of duty had for several years conspired to frustrate the couple from celebrating their wedding anniversary.
So she had planned for an exclusive party for them and even travelled from Nairobi to Mombasa for an exclusive romantic event.
Col Wambura had requested for some time off to meet his wife in Mombasa to appease her that Friday and he was scheduled to fly to Malindi and later travel by road to Mombasa to meet her. He even purchased an air ticket ready to travel that very night they received information about a planned attack by Al Shabaab that evening. He postponed the meeting with his wife until Monday.
He remembers listening to his wife cry when he informed her that he would not make it for their get together.
“The pressure was too much because we had intelligence that they were planning to carry out an attack that day. I had not slept for three days. These were issues of grave national importance that had been placed on my shoulders and I was not going to let it happen under my watch. I was in constant communication with the Director of Military Intelligence. I called everyone but we did not know what their target was going to be,” Col Wambura recalls.
Then on October 1, 2011 at about 0330hrs, Lt Col Wambura received the dreaded call from the incoherent owner of Majlis resort.
“He said the Maasai is here. They have come. The husband (in reference to the French woman Marie Dedieu who was his neighbor) is here. He was panting but he kept saying they are here. I have him here. They have kidnapped his wife. He told me the terrorists are here. We don’t know if we are safe,” Col Wambura recalls.
He tried to calm the hotel owner to no success. When he asked to talk to the victim’s husband, he too was hysterical and could not communicate. But Col Wambura knew too well that the dreaded Al Shabaab attack he had been trying to stop all along had happened.
Col Wambura quickly called his boss in Nairobi, the Lamu DC Ikua and OCPD Sigei and informed them about the attack.
When the first team of police officers arrived at the scene, they saw the attackers pull off the beach in a boat towards the high seas.
Out of the ordinary
In preparation for such an eventuality Col Wambura had done a complete assessment of the probable escape routes in the area, including the water channels. But the security team did not know which direction the attackers had gone.
Tracking teams were scrambled all over the coast and although they did not know the engine capacity of the attacker’s boat, they were familiar with the tidal wave, and sped of the wind at the time.
“We were able to determine that they could not have crossed the border, although we established that they had a fast boat. At the first light, we stationed people all over but we didn’t have aerial cover which was necessary because of the mangrove. We needed a fast eye on top,” Col Wambura recalls.
A white farmer volunteered the services of his aircraft to track the attackers and the fast moving boat was spotted in Kizingitini area at the first break of light. The security personnel were not taking any chances in case the fleeing attackers who had the French woman on board did anything out of the ordinary.
The attackers even shot at the aircraft when it flew near them, forcing the pilot to fly away but noticed that they were heading into the mangrove swamp to avoid detection. The pursuing Kenyan security team was concerned that if the attackers entered the mangrove swamp, it would be difficult to track them down.
The attackers were spotted speeding past Mkokoni and in a short while, they would reach Kiunga because they were cruising at a very high speed. It was estimated that the attackers’ boat was traveling at about 30 knots and a quick decision had to be made.
It was then that a team of soldiers were quickly scrambled from the 77 Artillery to pursue the attackers. The team comprised of Gunner Daniel Puyaka Lokitar, Gunner Joseph Muchiri Mwangi, Gunner Wycliffe Mmbuka Andahi and Gunner Phillip Ochieng Onyangon. Others were Corporal Mugo, Gunner Ngogoyo, Gunner Mamo, Senior Private Muhidini and Senior Private Guyo. Col Wambura, in his hurry to pursue the kidnappers, did not wear any warm clothing, an oversight he was to regret later when their boat capsized.
Although the boat they jumped into was not supposed to go into the high seas, the soldiers were determined not to let the attackers escape with the French woman.
When the team got to the shark infested ‘Mlango wa Kui’ at about 6:am, they spotted the attackers’ boat as it cruised in a mangrove channel but they quickly turned into the high seas.
The tracking aircraft also flew over them and confirmed that they had spotted the kidnappers boat before flying away.
Because, his satellite phone had run low on battery, Col Wambura ordered that their boat pulls back to allow him get to an area with Safaricom network so that he could communicate to his bosses and coordinate the pursuit.
A high speed pursuit ensued when the attackers headed into the high seas. The soldiers started singing war songs as they urged the boat’s captain to increase speed.
Cpl Mugo, the team’s leader, declared that they would not allow the attackers to escape at any cost but the sea was extremely rough and they had to negotiate the treacherous rocky section carefully. They could not even pick up the attackers’ skiff due to the radar blinders. But push on they did.
Then they started catching up with the attackers’ boat fast. But as the soldiers’ boat caught up with them, the attackers’ boat reduced speed, forcing Col Wambura to ask the captain to reduce speed to.
“Initially we did not know what they were up to, but the soldiers started singing war songs urging me on. They said they were ready to cross over into Somalia to save the French woman. We then took an approach to the attackers’ boat with the biggest gun on target. Our intention was to get close enough for some soldiers to jump into their boat and rescue Marie,” Col said.
However, when the military rescue team was about 200 meters away, one of the attackers who had been lying low in their boat next to the crippled French woman popped up with an RPG intending to fire at the soldiers.
However, even before he had fired, Gunner Onyango shot at him, killing him instantly as the distance between the boats reduced. But as fate would have it, the rescue boat was hit by a huge wave span almost 100 feet into the air before dropping them down.
Col ordered the soldiers to drop their guns lest they sink with the weight. Had the kidnappers turned around then, they would have easily killed the soldiers in the water but they just sped off in their boat.
Gunner Onyango, a good swimmer, helped each soldier tighten their life jackets while Senior Private Muhidini dove into the cold water to try and remove the heavy engine from the fibre glass boat.
Unable to remove the engine, Senior Private Muhidini emerged with a rope and handed over to Gunner Andahi who had been screaming his head off. Gnr Andahi had in desperation attempted to grab at Col Wambura but he was calmed and instructed to breathe shortly before a wave hit the group.
Two hours after their boat had capsized, the soldiers saw planes flying over them but they were too high. They could not have spotted them even when they waved their life jackets.
Col Wambura recalls being wrestled by the sea water as he tried to keep afloat and reassure the soldiers that help would soon come.
“It was like the water was wrestling us and pulling us apart. Everyone was screaming in pain. Gnr Andahi started praying when he noticed that my confidence was ebbing because help had taken long in coming. I had not slept for three days and nights and finally exhaustion was taking its toll on me. Surprisingly, Gnr Andahi whom we were so concerned about because he did not know how to swim touched my head thinking I was dying. I saw Senior Private Muhidini’s distinct red life jacket popping in the water maybe a mile away and whistled for him to come,” the Col recalls.
He instructed the Senior Private to try and swim to the beach for help because five hours after the boat capsized there was no help in sight. But when Muhidini removed his life jacket and started swimming away, Col Wambura feared that the soldier would not make it to the shore.
“I then started regretting not meeting my wife. I could hear her crying on the phone until she hung up. I regretted not picking up my father’s three calls. My brother had also tried to call but I had assumed that if I talked to them I would be distracted. My chest was paining and I had difficulty breathing. I could hear Gnr Andahi praying. He told me that he had had a vision and was informed that we would not die in the water,” Col Wambura recalls.
All in all, three soldiers including Cpl Mugo and Gnr Ngogoyo died in the ocean. Gnr Onyango has been missing and presumed dead.
The rest were rescued. It later emerged that some fishermen saw an exhausted Snr Private Guyo in the water and rescued him. Shortly before he collapsed, he informed them that there were others still stranded in the high seas.
His heroic action and that of Snr Private Muhidini, who was also rescued by fishermen, saved the life of their seven colleagues. Two months later, after extensive counseling and treatment, Col Wambura was among the KDF soldiers to liberate Ras Kamboni and Kismayu from Al Shabaab.