Two hyenas paid the ultimate price and conceivably saved the lives of a dozen Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers during the military’s incursion into Somalia.
The pair of wild animals, known for their greed and uncanny ability to feast on their live prey, were killed when they trampled on a series of roadside bombs planted by the Al-Shabaab militants targeting KDF trucks last year.
The stunned but relieved soldiers did little to celebrate the lives of the animals as is the military tradition. However, one KDF personnel deeply appreciates the significance of the incident because it saved his life.
The hyena story formed part of the mental memorabilia of the many incidents for Lt.Col (Father) George Makau, a chaplain in the Kenyan military. He will forever remain indebted to the wild animals.
Lt.Col (Father) died early this week. And, this is an update from a past interview.
Back to the interview, the chaplain, who would have a machine gun on his left shoulder and a Bible and a rosary in his right hand for the 11 months he was on the frontline in Somalia narrated his experiences at the battlefront to the Standard eight years ago.
Under the codename Operation Linda Nchi, The Kenya Defence Forces infantry and amphibious units rolled into Somalia on October 16, 2011, to contain Al Shabaab incursions and have been there since.
The hyenas soaked up the blast from the landmines but Lt.Col (Father) Makau would later be shot in the line of duty. He was airlifted to the KDF Memorial Hospital where recovered from the war wounds after which he continued with his duties.
Before his demise Lt.Col (Father) Makau would frequently refer to incidents from the war front in his sermons to motivate soldiers and their families in the barracks. His sermons provided first-hand accounts of a soldier’s life.
Lt.Col (Father) Makau was in the first contingent that made history for crossing over into Somalia to eliminate the Al-Shabaab terror group that was riding roughshod in Somalia from where it would stage terror attacks in Kenya. Their incursions included killings and kidnappings of tourists from in Lamu.
The terror group was linked to several attacks on border towns, grenade attacks and kidnappings prompting then-President Kibaki to declare war.
Lt.Col (Father) Makau’s role in the war was unique and less talked about. He provided moral support and spiritual guidance to soldiers who profess the Catholic faith.
“It is common for a soldier to be under stress at the war front. I was their father and counsellor,” he told The Standard.
There were two other chaplains for Protestants and Muslims. “Everyone in the army must belong to any of the three faiths,” he told The Standard on a Saturday after a mass in one of the KDF barracks in Nairobi.
A similar mass, hundreds of miles inside Somalia, would have lasted no more than 20 minutes, he told us and would have been at dawn.
“I would have my gun strapped to my shoulder throughout the mass and at all times,” Lt.Col (Father) says, demonstrating how the gun would be strapped on his shoulder while delivering the mass.
Confessions, which are a central pillar of the Catholic faith, were given in the bushes while the others kept watch.
The soldiers lived each day knowing they could die under a hail of gunfire. His role in keeping the soldiers grounded in their faith and remembering their loved ones at home may have kept the soldiers’ morale high. Being ambushed by the militants was regular. Al-Shabaab fighters would launch attacks using guns mounted on improvised pick-up trucks called ‘technicals’.
In September the worst happened. Al-Shabaab attacked Osingo near Afmadhow. Lt.Col (Father) Makau suddenly came face to face with a fusillade and screaming militants.
Armed with a gun and his rosary he realised the explosion of gunfire was an attack. The KDF soldiers returned fire in equal measure. He remembers the rapid fire and then suddenly wincing in pain. He had been shot in the leg. He survived the battle but that moment also marked his withdrawal from the battlefront. He was airlifted to a hospital bed at KDF Memorial Hospital in Nairobi.
The bullet was lodged in the upper left leg. It was subsequently removed at the hospital. But that outcome was perhaps better than what would have happened earlier in mid-November 2011 that would have led to his permanent withdrawal.
It was an incident that still haunts him every day. They were driving through the town of Tabda in the first month after entering Somalia.
Two hungry hyenas on the hunt had accidentally stepped on a crude roadside bomb set up by Al-Shabaab that was targeted at the KDF.
Lt.Col (Father) Makau was in the leading vehicle in the convoy. Soldiers arrived at the spot to find the mutilated and ripped-up bodies of the hyenas that had taken the full impact of the bomb. It was a chilling sight.
If the convoy had reached the spot before the two hyenas, Lt.Col (Father) Makau and his colleagues would have been killed and become part of the statistics of men in uniform who have paid the ultimate price in Somalia in defence of their homeland.
“It (the explosive) was right on the path we were to use.”
Lt.Col (Father) denied stories that the KDF tortured or involved itself the in the mistreatment of Somalis; even pointing out that the Somalia National Army (SNA) had a policy of assimilating the prisoners of war.
“If there was any torture, it must have been by the SNA… captured militants were taken in to join the Somalia army that we were fighting alongside.” It was easy to assimilate the militants into the SNA because most had been disoriented over promises of salaries from their commanders that were never forthcoming,” he said.
Back in Somalia, KDF Muslim soldiers and members of the Somalia National Army would hold their five prayers jointly, under the cover of their Catholic and Protestant colleagues.
But his mind often wandered back to those tense and dangerous days on the battlefront in Somalia and the role that the KDF has played in the liberation of the war-torn country from militants.