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Mothers recount how sons fled to join Al Shabaab

 The terror group has been recruiting Kenyan teenagers, some as young as 13, for suicide missions (Photo: Courtesy)

On the evening of July 23 2011, Hidaya Wanjiru finished selling bhajia in Majengo, a slum sandwiched between Kamukunji Grounds and Eastleigh, Nairobi.

Wanjiru’s 13-year-old son, Omar, who normally received money from customers as his mother served them, was by her side. That evening, Omar quietly surrendered the money to his mother before heading out for Isha prayers - the last prayer of the day for Muslim faithfuls.

“Take your cash. Money is so tempting and I don’t want to fall into its trap,” Wanjiru recalls him saying. “He stared at me for a few minutes, smiled and then left for the mosque.”

What she never knew was that her son had made plans to leave the country for Somalia. By giving back the business money, the Class Seven pupil was staging his last act of obedience to his family.

The previous day, he had stepped down as the hockey captain for the local estate team. He also returned the phone given to him by his hockey coach to coordinate team training.

Back at home, his mother balanced her business books, prepared supper and waited for her son just like she always did.

Hardly did she know that the wait will last forever. Omar never went for the Isha prayers; he left for Somalia. Later, Wanjiru discovered that her son had inscribed on their fence some words: “Mum usijam nitakam” (mum don’t worry I will come back). This message struck her. A deeper voice whispered to her that the disappearance was not normal.

“I waited for him, searched for him in vain. After three days, I confided to a friend who advised me to speak to an international journalist, to help broadcast my story so that my son could be traced,” Wanjiru says.

Murder threats

When the news went out to a global audience, Al Shabaab reacted. Wanjiru started receiving strange phone calls from them. They said they will kill her if she continues to talk to the media.

The Kenyan anti-terror police unit took up her case. The daily routine of speaking to uniformed men alienated her from her neighbours. She decided to go into hiding. She went to Dandora Estate.

Omar, oblivious of the chaos he left behind, called his mother trying to convince her to join him in Somalia. Wanjiru was shocked. She decided to cut ties with her son. The next time she heard about Omar was on June 21 2013; a week to his 17th birthday and four years after he had disappeared.

Wanjiru was recuperating after a successful caesarean surgery. She was breastfeeding her now seven-year-old daughter. Omar, deep in the southern Somalia jungle, was busy finalising a planned attack on a United Nations compound near Aden Adde airport together with his fellow terrorists.

“I received a call from an unknown number. The person on the other side told me that my son was the lead suicide bomber in the attack. I sunk into trauma and depression,” she says.

A few days shy of seventeen years, Omar, the soft-spoken, bright boy from Majengo blew himself, killing more than 20 innocent civilians in the attack.

Kenya sent condolence messages to Somalia after the horrific attack. In the same Majengo slums, Zuena Wanjogu recalls December 23 2013 vividly. Her son Haji knocked on her bedroom door.

“Haji was always the first to wake up. He would rush for the fajr prayers (dawn prayers) before embarking on his daily routine.” Zuena Wanjogu says.

That morning, however, Haji was bidding his family goodbye albeit without them knowing. Unknown to Zuena, Haji was attending extremist classes at the mosques. By the time the boy sat for his national exams, he was part of the Alshabab cell in the country ready for deployment.

Received calls

“A week after my son disappeared, I received a call from an unknown number, it was him calling. He told me that he was in Somalia and I should not be worried. My heart sank. I begged him to return home, but he hanged up,” Zuena says.

The anti-terror police interrogated her severally, ransacking her house. In October 2018, two months after his 18th birthday, Haji called home asking for financial help. While he lied to his mother that he was involved in a motorcycle accident, he was actually injured after a shootout with government-allied forces in Somalia.

Around this time, the Alshabab militia had turned their guns on each other, blaming the Kenyan recruits of pilfering information to the Kenya Defence Forces.

“Since 2018 when he called to ask for money I have never heard from him again. But I know he is in Somalia,” Zuena says.

Engage Jamii Initiative (EJI), a local non-governmental organisation has been at the forefront in helping women to deal with trauma and healing after their sons went to join Al Shabaab. The organisation helps in giving women seed money to start businesses while providing them with an avenue of sharing their troubles .

“We started in 2016, after realising that most women are going through issues with nowhere to turn to,” said Fatuma Kamene, EJI director. “At EJI, we provide women with a platform to talk about their problems. We have support groups that help them to undergo therapy.”

Today the world marks International Day for the Disappeared. Both Wanjiru and Zuena have resigned themselves to their fate.

Omar went to his death after disappearing under the cover of darkness, while Haji went away at dawn, leaving his mother in cruel agony.

International Literacy Day is coming up. When was the last time you read a book?

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