By every account, abducted Cuban doctors Dr Landy Rodriguez and Dr Assel Herera Correa had treated 7,000 plus patients over the months they worked in Mandera County Referral Hospital.
Amiable, easy-going and dedicated to the bone, the pair braved difficulties of language barrier, culture disparities, separation from their families and distant rumours of insecurity, to deliver quality services to marginalised communities - until deranged terrorists struck yesterday.
In the wake of this senseless act, vulnerable patients, including those from neighbouring Somalia, were left visibly shattered on the benches of the hospital, unsure of what awaits them with their appointments cancelled.
On Thursday night, at 9.30pm when Dr Rodriguez was leaving Mandera County Referral Hospital, he checked on the list of patients he was to operate on the next day and promised to be at the hospital before 9am.
The Cuban surgeon consulted with his team to ensure the scalpels, gloves and medication they were to use to operate on a patient who was booked with acute appendicitis had been put in order.
Then, he waved and said “Kwaheri” in his shaky Swahili and together with his other colleague, Dr Correa, they called it a day. They had worked for more than 10 hours, as was typical in the only referral hospital in Mandera County.
They drove off with their bodyguard Constable Katambo Ngala to their home a few kilometres from Mandera Governor Ali Roba’s house.
“The patients were waiting for them, and some had arrived so early. The Cuban doctors always kept time and handled even the most complex cases,” Mandera Health CEC Mahamud Eda said.
At 9am on Friday morning, as they were edging towards the hospital, gunmen believed to be linked to the Al Shabaab terror group, pounced on them.
Witnesses say a group of armed men blocked the road with a saloon car and immediately opened fire. Constable Katambo and another policeman whose identity is yet to be known are said to have attempted to shoot back but were overwhelmed by the bullets being fired at them from different sides.
Katambo was felled and the assailants fled with the two Cuban doctors. The other policeman escaped on foot.
“One policeman was fatally shot by the attackers, and they then “commandeered the car and the occupants, before crossing the border to Somalia,” Police spokesman Charles Owino said at a press conference.
At the hospital, weary patients who had been booked for surgery by Dr Rodriguez were rescheduled. Urgent cases were taken up by the resident surgeon.
Patients at the general ward where Dr Correa frequently visited with a stethoscope on his neck asked for him and muttered prayers when news of the abduction was broken.
“It is a huge loss. The abduction of the doctors hurts the poor people the most since they cannot afford to fly out when they are sick,” says Eda.
He says since the doctors arrived in Mandera last year, the surgeon had attended to 3,470 patients while the general practitioner had done more than 4,300 cases.
Eda described the doctors as steadfast and cheerful. He recalled an incident where an accident had occurred in Banisa Sub-County and a patient had been brought in critical condition.
He had an internal bleeding and was sliding in and out of consciousness. Dr Rodriguez is said to have worked from around midday through to the depth of the night without taking a break.
“They were dedicated to saving lives. They never complained,” says Eda.
In the past, when asked about whether he was apprehensive about working in Mandera, Rodriguez had said he had worked in a war torn region before.
The terrorists abducted the doctors a few minutes after Governor Roba’s security had passed the same scene. Roba was supposed to commission a new hospital on the same street before the incident.
The attack comes barely hours after the county launched an action plan to prevent and counter violent extremism. The plan was launched by regional commissioner Mohamed Birik.
On Tuesday, the US Embassy issued a travel advisory against Kenya. “Exercise increased caution... due to crime, terrorism and kidnapping,” the warning read.
It is not clear if the doctors sustained any injuries during the commotion.
Mandera County has been a preferred choice of treatment for neighbouring countries. Governor Ali Roba said that last year alone, 20 Mandera health centres treated over 474,000 Ethiopian and Somali patients.
The Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentist Union (KMPDU) condemned the abduction of the Cuban doctors. Secretary General Ouma Oluga urged the government to ensure safe release of the abductees. [Additional reporting by Michael Chepkwony]