On January 15, 2016 Mohammed Awadh left Mombasa with three of his friends for their home in Kwa Jiwa in Malindi, some 115 kilometres away.
He, like the rest of his friends, had never been home in close to three years. But they were convinced that Kwa Jiwa, the sprawling settlement on the edge of town, was the only safe space left for them.
Particularly after a billboard on the Likoni Crossing and another one in town had some of their faces.
They were wanted, with a Sh2 million bounty on their heads.
Mohammed felt indebted to one person, his mother. It had been years since he saw her. What he didn’t know though, was that as the band of friends moved from one coastal town to the other, an unshakeable shadow too was trailing them.
Barely days after they made it to Malindi, all four lay dead. Mohammed was shot through the mouth.
A post-mortem report showing he was shot at close range. A single bullet that made a mess on its way out, opening up a hole the size of a tennis ball at the back of his head.
“They never gave him a chance,” Zeinab, Mohammed’s mother says. “He wanted to come home and was ready to surrender.”
Mohammed, a slim boy of dark complexion curly hair and stubborn forehead, was the first born in a family of three. His mother was a respected member of the community. In fact, for many, she remained the link between the community and the state as a village elder in an ecosystem in which distrust between the people and the state runs deep.
“As a mother, I believed he was destined for greater things. He had drive and ambition,” she says. “He wanted to be an engineer.”
For an outsider, Kwa Jiwa looks like another settlement in coastal Kenya. Narrow, dusty streets on which houses share walls with business premises on one side and mosques on the other. Little children run around oblivious of the dangers posed by the numerous tuk tuks and boda bodas. They hardly notice the odd car.
But in 2014, Mohammed came face to face with another kind of danger. And it lurked in the house next door, personified in a respected, religious businessman who spent his time between Malindi and Mombasa.
And it is this man, armed with the allure of success, a warped idea of Islam and looked like the son every mother wished for, who unbottled the young man’s secret ambitions. Ambitions birthed after an encounter with the police, that would later, according to Kenyan security agencies, mature into a blood thirsty orgy of violence.
“He became angry after the incident,” Zeinab says. The incident she talks about happened one evening in mid-2014. He had just received his first salary from his first job as a cybercafé attendant.
On his way home, his mother says, Mohammed met a police officer who demanded to know why the young man was not at home.
“He frisked him and took away all the money he had been paid, some Sh18,000,” Zeinab says. “That’s when he vowed revenge.”
By the end of that year, he disappeared from home, becoming a living statistic in the number of Kenyan citizens who crossed over to Somalia to join Al Shabaab.
Nothing in the boy’s life would have indicated that he would be a recruit for the terror group. There were no red flags. No outward signs.
“This is what security agencies are grappling with now. There is no template for an Al Shabaab recruit. Their backgrounds and motivations are diverse,” Halimu Shauri, Associate Professor at Pwani University says. “None of them join for a holy war.”
From phone conversations with Mohammed, Zeinab says her son joined the terror network for two reasons, both of them entirely selfish.
“He wanted to kill as many policemen as possible because of the incident he had with them. And equally important was that he was promised a joining fee of Sh1 million,” she says.
Only one of these ambitions came through.
“He never got any money. After he came back, he used to call me and say he didn’t even have food for the day,” she said. Mohammed may have been the apple of his mother’s eye. But through his own admission, he was no saint. The two million bounty on his head was as a result of his involvement in some brazen attacks, including random shooting of policemen within Mombasa County as well as links to the Garissa University massacre that led to the death of 147 people, most of them students.
“He said he never went to Garissa. But he admitted that he had done some bad things to men in uniform,” the mother said. For her, mistakes on earth shouldn’t go unpunished.
“But only God has the right to take away someone’s life,” she says. “People who want to change can be forgiven.”
Unlucky for her and her first born son, the state hardly forgets.
Neither does it forgive. And in the end, the punishment was death. It was swift and painful bringing to an end a mother’s four year wait for her son and some closure to the ones who survived those killed by Mohammed.