Long Read: Once Upon a Time in Mandera

On assignment in Mandera in 2009. Photo by J. Harris

Once Upon a Time in Mandera: An abduction in northeastern Kenya
20 July 2009

It had been a very busy day with various activities going on at the same time in different places with people going here and there. It had also been a day when the winds were unusually strong and huge dust storms were sweeping across town. The fine gritty powdery sand stung my eyes, found its way inside my mouth, dusted my hair and eyelashes gray, while the wind whipped my dress and scarf around me. I feared for my camera and I hoped that the ubiquitous dust would not damage its innards.

It was Friday, the 17th July, my fifth day in the hot arid desert frontier town of Mandera in northeastern Kenya, having arrived five days earlier on the 8 a.m. humanitarian flight from Nairobi. I had another six days to go. It was also my first time to visit Mandera and I was particularly excited. The anthropologist photographer in me was entranced by the thought of being in a town that was quite unlike other places I had visited before. Less than a kilometer and a half to the east and south lay Somalia and less than four kilometers to the north lay Ethiopia. The town was populated by pastoralist and agro-pastoralist Cushites – the Somalis.

After Nairobi’s chilly highlands winter weather, the dry searing desert heat was like an oven blast. I happily junked my planned garb of loose trousers and loose long sleeved shirts and vest for three gorgeously-hued ankle-length, climate and culture-appropriate Somali dresses hastily made for me within an afternoon at a nearby market.

For the past several days, I had been busy and happy taking photographs. The people, while camera-shy at times, were also intensely curious about the images I took and would often crowd around me, laughing, pointing, and giggling at their photos. I had already learned a few phrases of Kisomali and I would practice them on anybody who could manage to understand my pronunciation. My companions were also very busy with their own work, having prepared for the work to be done weeks and days before.

So, all of us were looking forward to a relaxed evening that Friday. Bags and sandals and flipflops were shaken free of dust, welcome showers were taken, sticky dusty clothes changed and finally, ice-cold bottles of soda, water, and beer were plucked from the fridge and enthusiastically chug-a-lugged. People drifted in and out of the kitchen, some getting plates of food for an early dinner. Friday night was shaping up to be like any other typical night after a hard day’s work. But it was also day where, like any other day in that frontier town, everybody staying in our compound had to be safely indoors before dark. No exceptions.

Some of my companions were already sprawled on the couches in the “TV room” – an open-sided thatched hut slightly raised off the ground on one side of the courtyard. People removed their shoes, sandals, or flipflops before stepping into the TV room.

A couple of people were conversing in the “dining room” – again another open sided hut at the other end of the courtyard.

Another group had congregated up at the rooftop. There it was cool and breezy. There were a couple of mats for relaxing or exercising. If one was so inclined, there was also a bed to sleep in overnight if one was sturdy enough to withstand the strong dusty wind that invariably sprang up past midnight. If one couldn’t stand the wind, one could always drag the bed inside a simple open-sided hut that was also on the rooftop.

It was already dusk when I finished downloading photos and cleaning my camera. I decided to climb to the rooftop, taking care since the stone steps had no handrail. On the far side of the roof, I could make out three of my companions.  I was gazing at the nearby splendid mosque when out of the deepening gloom, I saw N emerge from the stone steps.

“Oh, you startled me!” I said. N was holding a cell phone and I knew another call to family was forthcoming as was N’s nightly habit. “Hmmm, your family must be very excited to see you soon, huh?

But I’m sure you’re going to miss this place too. You’re going to wake up in the middle of the night, calling out for this place and wishing you were back right here,” I teasingly said as I moved away from N and towards the group at the other end. “I better not. My family will kill me!” N said.

“Can I join you?” I said as I neared the other three. D was doing situps on one of the mats while W and MA were conversing nearby.

“Yes, yes, please have a seat, have a seat” said MA. “Can I get you a beer?”

“No thanks, I already had one. I barely managed to finish my Tusker. Normally I go for the smaller White Caps or Tusker Malts.”

I sat quietly gazing over rooftops while W and MA continued to talk shop. After a while D called out to N who had already finished calling to family. “Have you been doing your exercises? You should. Remember, you’re going home next week… You need to be strong and fit when you go home after all this time away from the loved one, eh?”

“Yes,” I added, “look at how K was exercising hard these past days before flying out and leaving us yesterday.”

We all laughed while N said, “I don’t need to exercise. Take a look at this body. I am ready. I am always ready. I am always in fighting form,” winking at us before going back down with D.

MA, W and I stayed behind for a few more minutes, comparing prices of goods and services in our respective countries. We all agreed that tuition seemed to be cheapest in my country. After a while, MA also went down.

W talked about wanting to visit my country and studying there in the future and getting to meet up again with my compatriot MC who had just finished mission and had also gone back home just earlier this week a few days before K also left to go home to own country. After a few more minutes, W and I also went down to join the others.

In the kitchen, I asked H, one of the kitchen/house staff, “So, when are we having camel for dinner? I want to know what it tastes like. Are you sure this isn’t camel, huh, H?” I asked as I peered into one of the pots.

“No, no, that’s goat. That’s still goat.” said H.

“Aww, too bad it isn’t camel,” I replied, as H laughed.

W grimaced, “Camel?? Not my thing at all. Give me goat anytime.”

I helped myself to some excellent goat stew, rice, and sukumawiki (collard greens/kale).

“How about tomorrow? Are we having camel for N’s going away party?” I asked H.

“No. We are having nyama choma (roast goat) and kachumbari (tomato salad), and many other things. But, no camel,” H said.

“Aww, come on. This may be the only place where I’ll get to try it. MC said to me before leaving for home that you also serve camel for dinner sometimes,” I teased H.

“I will cook for you soon,” H promised.

In the TV room, C was asking if we were watching another movie tonight. The two previous nights, we had enjoyed watching “Star Trek” and “Shrek 2,” courtesy of J and F who had labored to set up laptop, projector, speakers, and sofas out in the courtyard. The movies were projected on to the high cement wall beside the tall metal gates. We even had popcorn to munch on while watching movies with the desert stars above us.

But since F had left the day before for another project site, and J and the rest were tired, we decided to forgo the courtyard cinema. J and L went to their own rooms instead to watch movies in their laptops. M decided to do some work in own room. W and D went to the kitchen to make some tea and cook more food. The kitchen/house staff had already left.

Five of us remained in the TV hut to watch “The Italian Job” showing on cable TV. As was our custom, we had left our flipflops by the steps. C and N sat down on each end of one couch, R and I took the middle sofa while B stretched out, feet up, in the third couch. We proceeded to enjoy an action movie about a gold heist, betrayal, and retribution.

The TV movie ended around 9:30pm. Everyone got up except B who wanted to see if there were other good things to watch, it being Friday night. I said, ok, if there’s something interesting, call me. C, who normally stays up late to watch news etc, was tired from a long trip that day and decided to go back to own room. N also went back to own room. R headed out to shower stalls/toilets block out in the back for a shower. I went back to the so-called dungeon some five meters away from the TV hut where my room was to look at the photos I had taken for the day and to see if my camera batteries were already charged. For some minutes, I occupied myself tagging and marking photos.

After a while, I said to myself, hmmm, it’s really hot in my shoebox of a room. I could do with some really cold water. I went out of room and dungeon, and passed by the TV hut. B was still there, surfing channels. I went past, crossed the dark courtyard, past the dining hut and to the kitchen, unlatched the door and turned on the light. I got out a liter of water, turned off the light, and went back to my room. I poured myself a tall glass, chug-a-lugged, ate some peanuts, chug-a-lugged some more, clicked on photos. I changed from trousers into shorts to be more comfortable.

After having had a big bottle of beer earlier, and a substantial dinner, and several glasses of water throughout the evening, and finally adjusting to the food after nearly five days in the area, I felt that tonight would probably be a good time to finally have a leisurely meditative time with myself in the…. toilet. 🙂 I must not resist the call of nature. I armed myself with the necessities of toilet time plus took my toothbrush and toothpaste.

When I passed by the TV hut, I saw that R had come back from shower and had joined B. Both were engrossed with a program. The TV volume was quite loud. I again crossed the dark courtyard.  Most of the bedrooms to my left that opened to the courtyard were also dark. I went inside the dark kitchen again to fill an empty liter bottle with water from the sink tap.  Then I headed to the toilets.

The only illumination on this side of the compound was the light by the entrance to the shower stalls/toilets block and this light is usually kept turned on all night. I turned on the light for the first toilet of two toilets – the one with the Western-style seat. I then went inside. To lock the door, I rotated a little nail that had been hammered to the door frame and then bent to serve as “lock.”

I had been inside for maybe about three, four, five minutes when my reverie was suddenly shattered by the sound of a man screaming in terror. It was just one brief yet blood-curdling cry and it sounded very near. Then silence.

Could there have been a drunk outside on the street? Was someone being mugged?? Or being stabbed??? I didn’t know what to think. Then I heard a single gunshot. I started to get scared. Gunshots and screams were not supposed to happen near the vicinity of the compound. I looked up at the flimsy-looking toilet roof and I imagined being hit by a stray bullet. Then I heard scuffling and low but urgent voices. Then the sound of running feet. Moments later, I heard cars being started, the squeal of tires and then vehicles speeding away. Then again, silence.

I hurriedly finished my business in the toilet. I almost dropped the bottle of water. I dropped the roll of toilet paper. My fingers suddenly seemed all-rubber. I turned the nail to unlock door and went out the toilet and peeked outside, past the laundry area and the front of the kitchen and beyond the dining hut into the courtyard. I saw no one.

I saw I was still clutching my toothbrush and toothpaste and for a brief crazy moment I considered brushing my teeth by the little washbasin with mirror just outside the toilet block but I was scared of being out in the open. I left my toothbrush and toothpaste by the basin and decided to go back to where the others were and find out what was happening.

When I reached the TV hut, I was surprised to see it empty. The TV was on, the fan was on but even more surprising, the sofa back and seat cushions were all in disarray. Some of the cushions lay haphazardly on the floor. What the??

I saw R’s blue Croc-like rubber sandals and B’s blue flipflops by the steps. Hmmm, they must have been really in a hurry to go somewhere, barefoot.

I entered the dungeon to go to my room. The light was on as I had left it some scant, what, 10 minutes ago? I peeked into R’s open room opposite mine. The light and ceiling fan were turned on but the room was also empty. What the?? Where are all the others?? Hmmm, where to go? Should I go back to my room? But where are all the others?? Damn it!

The door to L’s room near my room was closed, the room dark, silence within.

I went back to my room, put on trousers over my shorts, grabbed my cell phones, went out room and out dungeon and stopped again by the TV hut. I was starting to get really really scared. I strained to hear for whatever, for anything but the TV was so loud. I turned it off. I still heard nothing so I turned off the ceiling fan too. Still nothing. I darted into the only lighted room that faced the courtyard, less than three meters from the TV hut. It was also empty. I turned off light and left the door open an inch so I could look out. Still, no one. Still silence.

Who to text?? I scrolled through my cell phone, trying to remember names. Damn, damn. D’s name came up. Ah, good! Just some days ago, D had given me a very good security briefing. If there was one person to talk to, D was it.

“Where are you?” I punched out the message on my phone. The time was 10:14 pm. (GMT +3)

“Upstairs” D texted back after an eternity.

“On the roof? Can I go there too?”

“No” was D’s terse SMS.

Not fair!! They were all together. Maybe they went up the roof to see what was happening! And here I am downstairs all alone. Not fair!! I turned off the fan so I could hear better. Still silence. I decided to go out the room and stand beside TV hut to call out softly to D upstairs on the rooftop. “D!!!”

I heard a hiss: “Go back inside!”

I darted back to the room. After a few minutes, I heard someone creeping down the stairs. I saw D pass by, on the way to the dungeon.

“D!” I’m over here.” I hissed.

D hurriedly came and closed the door. We sat on the bed.

“What’s happening? Where are the others?” I whispered to D.

“They are gone.”


“They have all been taken.”


“Armed men came and took them away. We are the only ones left. I was on the rooftop. I saw the armed men outside. They were many.”

Omigod, omigod, omigod. I started shaking. Even D was shaking. I thought to myself, oh no, what if the armed men come back?? Besides today’s rather high-profile activity in the communities, I’ve been quite visible too these past few days. At every place we went, people have been curious about the photos I’ve taken, curious about me.  Might the armed men have conceivably known there was also this “Chinese” photographer? (I am always mistaken for Chinese here.) I told myself, perish the thought!! Immediately!!

“Do you think they’ll come back?” I asked D.

“No, they won’t come back. They have already taken the others.” D replied.

“What are we going to do?”

“I have called MS. The police station is near MS’s house. MS will raise the alarm. But I don’t think they’ll come back to take us.”

I think for a moment. “Is our gate open?”

“Most likely,” D answered.

Then we heard someone rattling at the gate, pushing it.

Omigod, omigod, omigod, they’ve come back!! I stood up, looking for a place to hide. I opened the door to the closet. I see clothes hanging and now I know that we are in N’s room. Omigod, how will I hide in this closet? These are all shelves! I will never be able to fit myself in here. I ran to stand behind flimsy curtains. Omigod, my feet can be seen, I can be seen. I can’t hide under the bed either – it’s in the middle of the room and anyone can see underneath it. I ran and crawled under the only one table in the room. It is about 2 feet by 3 feet and is covered by a skimpy piece of cloth. I crouched. I tried to pull down the cloth to cover me. Omigod, once they turn on the lights, anyone can see me.

I peeked out to find that D had left the room. Then I heard D talking to someone outside the room. Omigod, what if the bad people have come back??

I heard D move away.  “D, don’t leave me please.” But I remained crouched underneath the table.

I realized I must text R back in Nairobi to tell what had happened. I made many mistakes while typing my text. Even I couldn’t believe I was texting what I was texting. I was, to put it a bit melodramatically, in a state of shock. My text to R was sent at 10:28 pm.

My knees were starting to hurt from kneeling on the cement floor. R texted me back at 10:32 pm: “Who do I call” Apparently, R had to read my text several times because it seemed to be so unbelievable. What I had sort of half-seriously, more-jestingly told R what might happen while I was in the area, had, in fact, happened.

I forwarded a name. Then I realize this person was out of the country. I forwarded another name.

My knees were really hurting now. Then I heard a phone ring. I peeked from under the table and saw a cell phone flashing on top of the bed. I crawled out from under the table to pick up phone. The caller ID says it is B calling from Nairobi. I pressed the answer button.

“Hello, B? Is this B?” I whispered.

“Yes, this is B.”

“This is M. I am in N’s room.”

“What happened?”

“Armed men came. D, from the rooftop, saw them outside. Many men with guns. D says the others have all been taken. D and I are the only ones left.”

“Who were the ones taken?”

I try to remember. I say: “N has been taken, and J, and R, and, and B, and C.” For the life of me, I couldn’t remember who else were in the compound that night. I continue, “All of them. D says we are the only ones left.”

“Where are you now?”

“I am in N’s room, hiding under the table. D went outside. Someone was trying to come in. Someone has come in.”

B then told me to stay calm and hidden and to hang on to N’s phone. B said they were going to do everything they can for all of us.

I soon became aware that there were now other voices outside and D was talking in English. I peeked out and there was W! And MA! And then C! They had not been taken! Then J’s door opened and out came J, running. J was also safe! We hugged each other. We all hugged each other, MA, W, C. Then, from the dungeon, L also came out. L was also safe!

But where was B? and R? and N? I pointed out B and R’s flipflops, still on the TV hut steps.

Together we tried to piece what happened. D was the one who saw the most of what happened. This is my recollection, as far as I can remember, of what my companions experienced.

D’s story:

“Normally I don’t go to the rooftop at this hour but I was feeling warm inside my room so I decided to go up to cool off. While I was there, I heard a man screaming. I ran over to the edge to take a look. It was quite dark. I saw a man lying on the ground, as if dead. Then I saw around four men, with long firearms, wearing some sort of khaki uniform and this checkered scarf commonly worn as a turban by men. I assumed they were from the police and they were arresting a youth who was still out past curfew.  I glanced the other way and I saw more men, more guns. I also noticed there were two vehicles – a pick-up and a Prado land cruiser. I still thought they were policemen. I did not even bother to hide myself. Anyway it was dark. Then I noticed that all the lights in the streets had all been put out.

Then I heard a commotion outside our outer gate. It was not loud. I could hear someone ordering our guards to open the big outside gate. I thought to myself, this is not good. This is definitely not good. I then dropped to the floor. I was afraid they would shoot me if they saw me. I heard our guards refuse to open the outer gate. Then, someone climbed the outer fence and got in. I could hear him order the guards again to open the gates, still in low voices. They must have succeeded in forcing their way in because the next thing, I heard scuffling inside our compound. It was dark but I could make out people being marched out, their hands up in the air. I could hear the armed men saying “Twende, twende.” (Let’s go, let’s go.) Then I heard a shot, people running, doors slamming and then vehicles speeding away. I was very scared.

I then called some of our local staff living here in town and at first, some of them were not answering their phones or their phones were off. I finally got through to our FO whose house is near the police station.

I thought I was the only one left here till M texted me. I knew then that I was not alone and at least one other person was safe.”

J’s story:

“I had already turned off the light in my room and was almost asleep when I was startled by the sound of men arguing. Normally I never hear the guards even if my room is just beside their post. I could hear low but very insistent voices. I immediately sat up and listened some more. I said to myself, this is not right. Something bad is happening. I immediately got up, got dressed, looked for my passport, grabbed my phones, and hid under my table. I remembered thinking in the beginning that I must have looked pretty silly hiding under my bed if what was happening turned out to be a false alarm.

I could hear scuffling but nothing really loud, again just the low urgent voices. I peeked out from beneath my desk and through my window that overlooks the TV hut less than a meter away, I saw a short man, dressed in khaki, with this scarf wrapped round head, jumping up and down the sofa, as if trying to see if someone was hiding under or behind the chair. I tried to shrink farther into my desk even if I knew that once someone came in my room and turned on the light, I would be seen immediately. I didn’t really hear any sounds of resistance.

Then for a long time it seemed, the only thing I could hear after was the TV and nothing else. I ran to my door to unlock it because if they came back and found my room locked, they would immediately know someone was in.

I went back to hide under my table. I thought I was the only one left here. Then I heard someone turn off the TV and I knew someone else was out there but I didn’t know whether this person was friend or foe. Only when I heard someone, who I later learned was D, talking in English, did I come out of hiding.”

MA’s story:

“I was already asleep with the lights off when I was awakened by unusual noises, like a commotion, the gate being opened but not in the usual quiet way. I crept to my window to see what was happening. I saw the TV hut, which is some twelve meters to fifteen away from my room, with the lights on. I saw a man, a stranger, hitting someone with the butt of a long gun. I thought to myself, this is a bad situation, definitely a bad situation. I grabbed my two cell phones and crawled beneath my bed. I thought of calling or texting for help but I was afraid the gunman might hear me or even see the light in my cell phones. I fumbled, trying to remember how to mute my phones in the dark. I was afraid my phones would make a noise. I pressed my phones to my chest as I lay face down underneath my bed.

I heard someone walking towards my room and then I saw a tall man wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and carrying a gun pass by my window. I saw him walk towards the toilet block.

I remained hidden under my bed even when I couldn’t hear anything anymore. Then sometime later, I heard someone trying to open W’s door. Then this person came to my door next, trying to open my door but I didn’t reply. I peeked and saw it was D but I still kept quiet. I was afraid someone might have had D as a hostage and was forcing D to flush us out. I peeked out to see if there was someone with D. Only when I saw D, who was alone, go to C’s room, and then later come out with C, did I come out of my room.”

C’s story:

“I went to bed after watching the TV movie with the others. I was tired from a four-hour trip on very rough roads I had taken earlier in the day. I was already almost asleep when I was jolted by what I thought was the sound of a tire bursting. This was maybe around 10 p.m. I got up to peek out my window towards the direction of the TV room which is about 18 meters or so away from me. I could see the light was still on, I could hear the television though I couldn’t see anyone. I just assumed people were still watching.

I went back to bed but I felt uneasy. I couldn’t fall asleep again. I decided to lock my door but something was wrong with my key.  Through my window which directly faces the toilet block, I saw a man wearing a white long sleeved shirt pass by. I thought it was just W going to the toilet.

I was still lying in bed trying to sleep when someone opened my door. It was D and if I was surprised to see D, D was more surprised to see me. D said, ‘Oh, you’re here! You were just asleep this whole time?? Don’t you people have been kidnapped?? I thought M and I were the only ones left.’  Only then did I bolt out of bed, shaken. As D and I came out of my room, MA, whose room is near mine, came out too.

L’s story:

“I was already asleep when I was awakened by the sounds of commotion. I could hear men arguing, a gunshot, some scuffling, tires squealing. In my half-awake state, I thought I had left my laptop on and the action movie I was watching earlier was still playing. Then I realized the noise was coming from outside my room, where the guards were posted. I then knew something was very wrong. I immediately got dressed and then I crawled underneath my bed, taking my cell phones with me. I didn’t come out of my hiding place for a long time. But I was able to talk to my loved one on the phone while I was hiding.”

W’s story:

“I went to bed really early. I was not feeling well and had in fact made some herbal tea in the kitchen earlier with D. I then took some medicine, went to my room, locked the door, turned off light and immediately fell asleep. I only woke up when D came back to my room and banged on my door. I was shocked at what had happened.”




All seven of us were very relieved to be safe but very sad and concerned for N, R, and B. They happened to be the first people to be seen by the abductors. It was fortunate for us seven that already having gotten N, R, and B, the abductors, it would seem, were now more concerned in making a quick getaway.

The abductors saw B and R in the TV hut right away since it was the nearest lighted and open place inside the compound. Because the TV volume was loud, B and R couldn’t have heard them come inside both gates until the men were right in front of them. B and R must have been immediately dragged away since they never even had time or opportunity to put on their flipflops.

I can only assume that N, who was already in own room but had the light turned on, was the next easiest target.

We were to have had a going away party for N the following day, Saturday. N’s contract was soon to end and had, in fact, just had a handover that very day. Monday, 20th of July, N was supposed to have flown to Nairobi, then after a few days after, leave for home to be reunited once more with family.

R had just arrived from Nairobi the day before the abduction to participate in some of the activities. R hadn’t even had time to unpack bag. R was also due to finish mission in a few weeks after having worked in this country for more than a couple of years now.  R, who is bent on becoming a serious amateur photographer on the side, and I were planning to have a little wander around town and market, along with local staff, to take some general interest photos on Sunday, 19th July.

And B? B had been in the area/project for less than a month. B was very new, very eager. We would have spent the 22nd of July together visiting project sites and taking photographs…

The ten of us and the local staff were supposed to have a going away party for N that 18th July Saturday afternoon. Instead, the going away party became a going away trip for seven of us. When our emergency plane took off at 2 p.m., many of us were in tears – we knew we were now safe but we also knew we were leaving that arid and wild and harsh desert town earlier than expected. We also knew we were leaving without N and R and B….

We pray for their safety and early return. We pray for their families, friends, and colleagues. We also pray that their captors be enlightened and merciful. We pray for N, R, and B.



The three who were abducted were released after three months. Thank goodness.

About Marlene

visual anthropologist, documentarist, bookworm, occasional gardener, avid augmented reality gamer, bleeding heart, rescuecat mom, frustrated singer and musician, dreamer
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