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Witnesses recall the moment KDF chopper crashed in a peace farm

Rift Valley
KDF personnel at the scene where the wreckage of a chopper carrying their boss General Francis Ogolla and other senior officers crashed at Sindar area in Marakwet East in Elgeyo Marakwet County on Friday April 19, 2024. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

The tragic chopper crash that killed Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) Francis Ogolla and nine other high-ranking military officers coincidentally happened in a farm earmarked for a peace building.

This happened as the insecurity crisis in the North Rift claimed some of its biggest victims through the crash.

The 40-acre Sindar farm in the troubled Kerio Valley is part of a peace project, which would be cultivated by warring communities along the border of Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot County.

At the time of the crash, about 10 minutes to 2 pm on Thursday, the chopper carrying Gen Ogolla and his team of decorated soldiers fell to the ground and went up in flames, farmers were clearing the model peace farm in readiness for planting.

On Friday, hours after the horrendous chopper accident, a sorrowful mood engulfed the scene in Kaben location.

Investigators from the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) spent the better part of yesterday examining parts of the ill-fated chopper.

Another team of their hawk-eyed armed military men manned the scene and surrounding areas.

The wreckage was still strewn at the scene.

Military officers, who arrived at the accident site at 10.05 am, questioned several locals at the scene.

Locals said they were asked whether they heard gunshots near the scene at the time of the deadly crash.

Alongside the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), the teams pieced together the last moments of the KDF officers.

At least four men, who were first to rescue the fallen soldiers in the accident that happened metres  from where they were clearing the farm, were among grilled.

According to Kaben residents, the scene of the crash that shook Kenya is a banditry hotspot and barely a kilometre from a newly established military patrol base.

During the CDF's visit, one herder was shot dead in the neighbouring Endo location.

Strange loud sound

The media was barred from taking photos and videos of the scene, only watching from about 120 metres away.

Chairman of the peace farm, Denis Kirop, who was among those at the scene when the crash happened, said military officers investigated the circumstances leading to the crash.

"We gave the military and police investigators the information they wanted because it happened, coincidentally, in our peace farm," he said.

Richard Chesir, who was also at the scene, said the chopper produced a strange loud sound moments after taking off from Cheptulel Boys Secondary School in the neighbouring West Pokot County, one and a half kilometres from the model peace farm.

Cheptulel Boys was among several schools  Gen Ogolla and his team visited.

"The chopper made an unusually loud sound. We were on the farm and we were sitting down for lunch. The chopper faced up, with its tail pointing down and then it suddenly came down. What followed was a loud bang and the ill-fated helicopter caught fire," Chesir narrated.

Chesir said together with four other men, they rushed to the scene and found about eight military soldiers writhing in pain.

He said he initially thought the chopper was landing at the model farm.

"The same military chopper had made a U-turn near the scene of the accident before landing at Cheptulel. After 40 minutes, it took off at Cheptulel before crashing barely two minutes later," he went on.

He said the ill-fated chopper was among three helicopters that passed through the volatile area, heading northwards towards West Pokot at 11am.

Benjamin Kimutai, who was herding cows near the scene, said the chopper flew in a zigzag pattern before coming down and bursting into flames.

"I was scared when the chopper made a zigzag while producing a loud noise. I took off before returning to the scene to rescue the military personnel," said Kimutai.

Propeller stalled

Gregory Bowen left his meal of boiled beans as they rushed to rescue the soldiers.

According to Bowen, the ill-fated chopper's propeller stalled metres away from the scene before the fall to the ground.

"Most of the soldiers did not die on the spot. They were still alive when we arrived at the scene.

"Most of the officers were choking in smoke. The fire intensified and we were using machetes and axes to get the victims out," Bowen narrated.

Kaben location chief Kirionon Tarus said it was ironic that the accident happened on a farm set aside to foster peace.

Tarus said the scene of the crash was a banditry-prone spot.

"Many people have died in Sindar where the accident happened. The area is a thicket, and difficult for security personnel to pursue bandits," the Chief said.

He said the model farm is the second one after a similar project collapsed following animosities resulting from cattle rustling.

Tarus said the latest model peace farm was another attempt to foster peace through inter-communal farming.

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