Kamiti 3: Escaped convicts sat under trees and told us they were charcoal men

The three Terror convicts after they were arrested in Kitui.

About five kilometres from Kamuluyuni market, deep in the bowels of Mwingi East and about 90 kilometres from the Tana River County border lies a huge swathe of desolate and sun-baked uninhabited forest.

It is in this forest, about 250 kilometres east of Nairobi where on Thursday, three terror convicts who had escaped from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison were arrested by residents and members of the armed National Police Reservists (NPR) who serve the vast Nuu ward.  

Musharraf Abdalla, Joseph Juma and Mohammed Abdi are believed to have trekked for several kilometres from the other side of Kitui East where they had also been spotted within Endau location.

But the residents of Kamuluyuni village, who neighbour the pastoral community, are convinced that the three fugitives run out of their luck barely 15km from an area where locals believe the three would have easily found their way inside manyattas erected in Kitui County and where they would have been easily facilitated to cross over to Tana River County and beyond. 

However, from multiple interviews carried out with the local community, it appeared like hunger and thirst combined by the fatigue of trekking inside the forested area had worn out the fleeing convicts who decided to take a rest inside the bushes from where they were ambushed.

“Had they found their way among the pastoralists sitting inside that part of Kitui County, there is no way they would have been found. They simply ran out of luck…” said Juma Kilonzi, a resident.

So, how were the high profile terrorists nabbed? Paul Mwaniki narrated how he got a tip from a local woman who runs an eatery at Endau market. It is at this eatery where the haggard looking fugitives sneaked in on Wednesday evening and asked if they could have their phone charged. When she responded in the negative, the three slithered away into the darkness. But the woman who had been gripped by immense fear informed locals about the suspicious characters. “She told us they looked very tired and dirty and because I had heard the story about the fleeing Kamiti convicts, my curiosity was aroused,” said Mwaniki, one of the locals who, in the company of the NPR members, participated in capturing the three.

Track footprints

Mwaniki said the following morning he embarked on a mission to track the suspects, following a trail of footprints he had spotted.

He said he followed the footprints but often they would take a detour from the road and into the bushes. About 5km into his mission, he bumped into two members of the armed National Police Reservists who also joined the search party. Several kilometres into the forested area, they found the fugitives resting under acacia bushes. From here, the story is picked by Vetelo Komu, the corporal in charge of a 17-member team of the NPR based in Nuu ward. Komu was the first government officer to confront the convicts and later handcuffed them. “When we picked them, the three were seated under trees, but at a distance from each other. I approached them and asked that they identify themselves. They quickly told me they were charcoal burners. Curiously, they did not have any tools related to the kind of work they were claiming to do,” Komu said.

The officer says that the lie was a perfect excuse and would have easily been believed because the area in which the convicts were found is known for charcoal burning. The activity is actually one of the area’s economic mainstays, apart from subsistence farming and livestock keeping.

But the officer pressed on, demanding that the three produce their ID cards. On this demand, they pointed at another man, claiming he was their boss. At this stage, Komu decided to arrest and handcuff them, but he was shocked when one of the convicts rose up and attempted to fight while the others scampered into the bushes.

“With another of my officers, we immobilised him and managed to handcuff him. I then summoned a Probox car that transported him to the shopping centre,” the officer said, showing us a spot where he knocked down the violent convict before cuffing him. He says he then called for a back up from his other officers who immediately rushed to the scene using motorbikes. A search was then mounted to arrest the other two convicts. It did not take long.

“We managed to corner them in the forest and brought them out,” he says. He narrates how they watched in disbelief as the convicts admitted to their crimes, with one boasting how they bribed their way out of Kamiti Prison, while another begged to be killed rather than returned to prison. “One of them burst into tears, saying we would rather kill him than return him to Kamiti. I asked him what he had done to find himself imprisoned and he said he had participated in the killings at Garissa University,” Komu said.

But then, another of the braver fugitives opened up on their escapades.

“He told us we were very lucky to have arrested them. But he said if they had mobile phones, they would have called some individuals and compromised us with money. He asked us, if they had escaped from Kamiti, whom did we think we were?” the officer recounted. The officer recalled the fugitives explaining how, after escaping from Kamiti, they found their way to Machakos town from where they took public transport to Kitui. From here, they claimed they again used public means to Endau in Kitui East, after which they used motorbikes to slip through the villages.

This claim is believable because, unlike the Thika – Garissa Road that has several police road blocks, including one manned by a multi-agency security team erected at Kanyonyoo, the Machakos – Kitui Road is less manned. Prior to their arrest, about an hour earlier, the three had passed by a local homestead where they asked for water and even inquired if they could be served with food. This is home to a 70-year-old granny who was home with two of her grandchildren. The granny did not pay much attention to the terrorists who asked for directions to Garissa, to which she readily provided, according to her grandchildren. By the time we visited her home, the granny had travelled to Damsa market. Her grandchild who saw the terrorists told us how two of them sneaked into the homestead and begged for water and food.

“My grandmother gave them water but then they asked if there was anything to eat. She then offered to serve them githeri which they took away in one of their caps. But I also informed our grandmother there was a third person who was hiding behind the houses,” said the boy. Komu, the NPR corporal, says he and his team played their patriotic duty and hopes that the government would reciprocate by giving them part of the bounty that had been placed on the fleeing terrorists to improve their lot since they are not on government payroll. DCI had promised a Sh60m reward for the capture of the three.