Italian’s search hits rough patch as locals differ with authorities

Abducted Italian aid worker Sylvia Constanza Romano.
The story of the kidnap of a 23-year-old Italian aid worker and her search by a contingent of security officers in three counties is full of paradoxes.

Sylvia Constanza Romano, who was in charge of Africa Milele Onlus orphanage, was abducted on November 20, 2018 from the sleepy Chakama shopping centre, 80km west of Malindi town, Kilifi County.

More than 100 people from Chira, Assa and Bilisa villages of Garsen, Tana River County, have been arrested and questioned.

To date, Kenyan authorities have maintained her captors were “local ordinary thugs” while Italy insists they were “armed herders”. The two states have not labelled it a terror attack. But a tour in Tana River and Lamu reveals that the operation has now concentrated in the expansive Boni Forest, which straddles the Kenya-Somalia border, the bastion of Al Shabaab terror group.

Although security officials deny the involvement of Al Shabaab in the abduction the expanded operation to cover the entire Boni Forest contradicts that stand.

A police source says operation commanders are yet to sanction a full blast operation to trail abductors into the forest, fearing that the Italian could be used as a bait to lure them into a trap.

Hasty pursuit

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Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) troops have been victims of Improvised Explosive Devises (IEDs) or ambushes by the militants and fear among the commanders is that a hasty pursuit could be detrimental to rescuers.

In December last year, the Italian press reported that Romano had begun negotiations with the captors but failed to say who the assailants were.

We also established that locals and security agents are battling to control the narrative of Romano’s kidnap.

Afraid of a possible full-scale military operation, which has in the past led to severe atrocities in Tana River, elders are keen to advance the theory that the woman has been moved from the area.

“Local elders informed the security team that the lady was being held at Assa area near Garsen but they hesitated and we believe she was moved from here,” says Abdi Hassan.

Hassan, a Wardei community elder, says many locals had been tortured by security agents conducting the operation.

“This (torture) has led to mistrust between locals and security officers, which has derailed the operation. People here cannot even talk to strangers like you,” says Mzee Hassan.

But security officials appear to be keen to dismiss any theory to keep people in the dark.

“I cannot discuss an ongoing security operation,” said Interior CS Fred Matiang’i in Mombasa when asked about the operation. This has been a common response by all top security officials.

Efforts to get a comment from Tana River County Commander Patrick Okeri or the new Coast region Police Commander Marcus Ochola were futile. Their phones went unanswered.

The number of victims of torture has continued to swell as locals and human rights activists accuse the media and senior government officials of giving a blind eye to their woes.

At Chakama, we met Mzee Ali Mohamed and when asked about Romano, he heaved a deep breath, gazed at us through half-closed eyes and calmly walked away.

In Issa village, we find Ms Halima Mohamed, an expectant mother who is nursing injuries after she was allegedly beaten by police officers and left bleeding. She can’t walk and complains of pain.

In the next homestead, one-year-old Mahmoud Hassan is nursing head injuries after he was allegedly pushed out of a police Land Rover when his mother Fatuma Mariam was arrested.

The victims were tortured on December 5 last year after a single long hair of a Caucasian person was found near their villages, according to the locals.

“Our fact-finding mission in the area revealed that people are afraid to even share information because of police brutality,” said Francis Auma, Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri) Rapid Response Officer.

He said Muhuri has raised the matter with the National Police Service senior officials in the area and “we are happy that the police service top hierarchy has instituted a probe.”

The rescue operation is being carried out by KDF, the regular police, General Service Unit (GSU), Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Administration Police (AP) officers.

Other than claims of brutality, the search operation itself is shrouded in contradictions. It has emerged that not the locals, police or even the intelligence agency have established the motive of the kidnap. This is despite the arrest and interrogation of one of the key suspects, Ibrahim Adhan Omar, who Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet placed a bounty on over the abduction. Omar was arrested on December 9 last year at Bangale in Tana River North Sub-county and, according to police sources, he was driven to Garissa in North Eastern for interrogation.

His alleged conspirators, Yusuf Kuno Adan and Said Adan Abdi, are yet to be arrested. Kenya and Italian authoritieshave dismissed the assertion that the kidnappers were terrorists.

Locals interviewed say the three captors rented a lodging less than 20 metres from where the Italian lived ostensibly to survey of the area. Two other abductors are believed to be local youths.

Five people were shot and injured as the assailants waylaid Romano. They then ordered her to hike a motorbike and fled with her into a thick forest. The two motorbikes were later recovered in a forest.

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Italian aid workerSylvia Constanza RomanoAl Shabaab