Loise Njoki: My 690 days as captive of Somali pirates
On May 11, 2014, at 6.30pm, Loise Njoki and her friend James Kuria boarded a Safari Air Express flight at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), Nairobi, for Somalia.
Three hours later, they landed in Mogadishu, the capital city of the country that has been struggling with instability for many years.
The two had secured jobs as administrators at a herbal clinic owned by their Kenyan friend.
Two weeks later, their employer moved them to Adado, a town in the central Galgudud region of Somalia.
The business was adjacent to their residence and their employer had hired armed guards and a Somali-English and Kiswahili translator to assist them in their work.
However, six months later, the two, who hail from Njoro in Nakuru County and Gatundu South in Kiambu, respectively, were abducted by gunmen.
Ms Njoki was detained for 23 months and Mr Kuria for 15.
They were kidnapped on November 24, 2014 at around 7pm.
The kidnappers demanded a Sh100 million ransom each to release their captives — an amount that was impossible to raise.
But on Sunday at around 3am, Ms Njoki was rescued in a well-coordinated operation by the Galgudud Special Forces. Mr Kuria had been rescued in February by the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency in a 2am operation.
Ms Njoki was reunited with her family and friends on Tuesday evening at exactly 7.36pm, having landed at Wilson Airport, Nairobi, an hour before.
The relatives and friends, who included Mr Kuria, broke into song and dance as some shed tears of joy when Ms Njoki walked out.
BRIEF PRAYER SESSION
Religious leaders from Apostle Faith church, where Ms Njoki used to worship, led a brief prayer session. She then cut a cake, a piece of which she first gave to her 12-year-old daughter.
On Wednesday, Ms Njoki narrated the pair’s horrible ordeal in captivity.
The two had just retired to their bedrooms after a long day when the gun-wielding guards hired to protect them forced their way into Mr Kuria’s room and took his mobile phone, passport and money.
They then tied up his hands before instructing him to take them to Ms Njoki’s room, where they told her to surrender her belongings.
One of the guards was left behind as the two were bundled into a waiting vehicle, which had four more armed men. They were driven to an unknown destination.
Their first stop was in a desert at around 11pm. At every stop, they changed vehicles and picked up more armed men.
The following morning, they were taken to a small town, where they were locked up in a house. Here, their captors revealed to them that they were pirates and only the payment of $1 million could secure their freedom.
Each was told to call their relatives with instructions to tell them an exaggerated ordeal so as to earn sympathy in a bid to raise the ransom.
The kidnappers advised them to tell their families to seek the help of the Kenyan government or the United Nations in raising the ransom.
An escape attempt two weeks later failed as the captives were recaptured by gunmen at a mosque where they had sought refuge.
The daring act saw them barred from communicating and they were separately put under the guard of seven gunmen for four months.
The gunmen would let them out at different times — at 9am for a breakfast of some kind of bread and black tea, at 3pm for a bath and again at 8pm for a dinner of boiled beans and rice.
Unknown to them, frantic efforts were under way in Kenya and Somalia to secure their freedom.
At around 2am on February 17 this year, Ms Njoki and Mr Kuria were woken up by gunshots. Three of the pirates grabbed them and attempted to escape with them in different directions but were met by a fierce gun battle from security forces.
IN A DESERT
Two of the pirates who had held Mr Kuria retreated to the house, where they were killed in the fierce fighting, but those who were holding Ms Njoki managed to escape with her.
Mr Kuria was handed over to the regional commander, Fanaka Omar, who later handed him over to the Kenyan embassy in Mogadishu.
However, as the embassy organised for Mr Kuria’s return home, Ms Njoki was taken to a hideout in a desert several kilometres away. There, she recalled, the number of armed guards was raised to 10 to prevent her rescue.
“I overheard them discussing Kuria’s rescue, which really affected me, but, with no option, I decided to wait for the unknown,” Ms Njoki narrated.
“They warned me that should any other rescue attempt happen, they would kill me.”
She was only allowed to communicate with her family twice, in June.
Life became unbearable after the pirates’ financial muscle began to crumble, such that at times they could not afford meals or water.
Previously, she was kept in a house and would take a bath every day but in the desert she slept on a tattered mat under a tree and would sometimes go for five days without a bath. They often changed their location to avoid being tracked.
“It came a time when they could no longer afford beans and, therefore, our supper was white rice,” Ms Njoki recalled. “When water was available, I would get three cups a day for drinking, but many are the times when we went for days without water.”
After five months in the desert they moved to Arama. Here, she lived in a house under the watch of 10 gunmen, who were later reduced to seven. Two were always near her while the rest guarded areas they thought rescuers could use to enter the hideout.
Last Saturday, Ms Njoki was asleep in her room when a gunman knocked at the door and ordered her to take all her belongings, which included a bagful of clothes and medicine.
That did not seem unusual since she was used to being moved during the night any time the pirates sensed danger.
Moments later, she heard gunshots. In the gunfight, the Galgudud Special Forces overwhelmed the pirates.
“One of the pirates had held my hand as he planned to escape with me, but when the battle intensified, he let go and fled,” she said. “The forces came to where I was and picked me up.”
No casualties were reported.
After Ms Njoki’s rescue, Andrew Mwangura, the director of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers Assistance Programme, announced that no ransom was paid to buy her freedom. Her repatriation was organised by the Kenyan and Somali governments.