The wards of the Kenya Defence Forces Memorial Hospital on Mbagathi Way in Nairobi are named for the battles that claimed the most casualties during the decade-long Shifta campaign of the 1960s: Walgadud, Modogashe, Malkamari and others.
The streets of the barracks scattered around the country housing the soldiers who could very well end up in these wards in the line of duty follow the same pattern: they are also named after important events in the lives of the units. By important is meant outcomes that either succeeded or failed.
And so the question begs: When the operation beyond our eastern border is over and the troops have come home and the fog of war has cleared and a settlement with the families of the dead has been made, how will El Adde be remembered?
El Adde is the most emotive name in KDF.
Conversation about it is awkward and unwelcome. It is the nightmare that won’t go away and haunts the bosses at Defence Headquarters with unforgiving relentlessness every day.
The confirmed dead are gone and their families are pursuing compensation and closure. The wounded are nursing their traumas — both physical and mental. The missing are missing and nobody knows whether they will ever be found, alive or dead. El Adde is an open wound.
“Don’t expect the board of inquiry report about what happened in El Adde tomorrow,” a senior officer speaking on the condition of anonymity told me. “Don’t even expect it next year. It could be decades before the truth is made public. If you think this is unique to KDF, find out why there are still unresolved issues that happened between China and Japan during World War II more than 70 years ago.”
Because the Defence ministry has never given an official report of what happened, accounts of the worst military defeat in Kenya’s history have been left to survivors and, worse, to the perpetrators, Al-Shabaab. With the latter, it is often difficult to know where truth ends and propaganda begins if both are not already a cocktail.
But this much is factually accurate. At daybreak on this day in 2016, in the remote wilds of Somalia’s Gedo region in a town called El Adde, a truck carrying enough TNT explosives to bring down a skyscraper breached the defences of the camp occupied by men of Kenya’s 5th and 9th battalions. The strength of the defenders was roughly company size, meaning numbers anywhere between 120 and 200 people.
The men were part of Kenya’s contribution to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) sent there to rid the country of Al-Shabaab, the terrorist militia that was killing innocent civilians not just in its own country but within the East African region as well. Kenya bore the brunt of this terrorism.
The attackers had chosen their target well. The defenders of the camp were new to their environment, having just relieved colleagues who had done their year’s tour of duty. They were still familiarising themselves with the lay of the land. The early morning timing also meant that most of the Kenyan soldiers were asleep.
At first light, the hecatomb started. By several accounts, the suicide bomber who drove that explosives-laden vehicle flattened everything within a radius of 30 metres, taking down with him dozens of lives. Many bodies were burnt beyond recognition.
The fires were started by exploding ammunition and ignited fuel tanks. The attack took the Kenyans by complete surprise. Yet the bombing was just the precursor to an invasion.
Hordes of militia followed up with automatic weapons and overran the camp. The soldiers who survived did so by escaping into the bushes near the camp — but only to be pursued by the invaders who had all the wind behind them.
Al-Shabaab later aired credible video footage of prisoners and equipment they had captured in addition to the grisly images of the dead. By the time help was coming for the beleaguered Kenyans, the militants were long gone.
Nothing gets under the skin of serving senior military officers like asking them how many died in El Adde. Invariably, it is always answered with another question: “How does it help you to know?” Of course, this is disingenuous, and deliberately so. In military practice, there is an after-action debrief that follows an event of this nature.
Families are given an explanation of what happened to their loved ones and this usually includes trauma counselling. Next, the military speaks to, or should speak to, its main client — the public.
In strategic studies, officers preparing for leadership roles are taught the importance of cultivating and sustaining public support for their operations. They call it national morale whose unit is a single individual, and sum, the entire population.
If just a few people support operations with such far-reaching implications as life and death and are a drain on the national coffers, the question would beg: For whom are you fighting and why?
In the aftermath of El Adde, the then Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, said over 200 Kenyan soldiers had been killed but his office quickly released a statement saying he had been misquoted. Al-Shabaab militants said they had killed over 100 Kenyans. In his statement, Chief of Defence Forces Gen Samson Mwathethe gave no figures.
To try to find their way around this, journalists started counting the number of funeral announcements in the obituary pages of the newspapers. But in its often testy relations with the media, which it sees as nosy and irresponsible, the military lost sight of its own traditions and practices.
Contrary to what the public might believe because of the very nature of the soldiering profession, death is a big deal there. Despite going its way, it is not courted.
When they say they are willing to die for their country, they mean they want to live while they make the enemy die for his country. No normal soldier is suicidal.
Death is marked with such solemnity in the military that days of remembrance are set aside and every unit has monuments to its dead. The names are engraved in marble, or brass or granite and polished lovingly every once in a while.
On the intensely emotional remembrance days, soldiers are let to feel the intimate companionship they have with their own mortality.
The hopes and fears of their lives, overridden by the ceaseless activities of their every day, burst forth and the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and uncles in them come out in free flow. Sometimes it is good to cry.
“In military jargon,” an officer told me on the eve of the El Adde anniversary, “X-ray is the name we give to the dead, our dead, not the enemy dead. Yankee is what we call the confirmed wounded and Zulu are those missing in action. El Adde is an ongoing operation and it has all those.”
All the names of the ill-fated soldiers who woke up to that terrible morning three years ago are written in monuments in their units and some journalists invited by the military have seen them. It is only that out of respect, they have let them be. When time heals the still gushing wound, it will be possible to tell the full story.
The annihilation of a unit at war is not unique to KDF. Even the mightiest suffer devastating setbacks. A case in point, which has an uncanny resemblance to El Adde, deserves close attention because of the policy guidelines that came in its wake. On October 23, 1983, some 241 US marines and 58 French soldiers along with six civilians were killed when two suicide bombers detonated their trucks within their compound in Beirut, Lebanon. Like El Adde, the attackers had caught the camp’s occupiers by surprise.
Gen Colin Powell, who would later become the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the general who oversaw the first Gulf War, was at that time a military assistant to the US defence secretary, Casper Weinberger. Powell wrote about this incident in his memoirs, My American Journey, in a passage that should interest not just our military bosses but the civilians who make policy.
He wrote: “I knew that Weinberger, for all his outward self-possession, had been deeply troubled by the tragic bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. I did not realise how deeply until a singular draft document came out of his office. He asked me to take a look at it and circulate it to the administration’s national security team. Weinberger had applied his formidable lawyerly intellect to do an analysis of when and when not to commit United States military forces abroad. He had come up with six tests for determining when to commit American forces:
(1) Commit only if our or our allies’ vital interests are at stake. (2) If we commit, do so with all the necessary resources to win. (3) Go in only with clear political and military objectives. (4) Be ready to change the commitment if the objectives change, since wars rarely stand still. (5) Only take on commitments that can gain the support of the American people and the Congress. (6) Commit US forces only as a last resort.
“In short, is the national interest at stake? If the answer is yes, go in, and go in to win. Otherwise, stay out.”
Any number of questions about our current engagement in Somalia can arise out of these points. But for now, it is a time of remembrance and prayers for those still missing in action. Moi Barracks in Eldoret, home to 9KR, and Gilgil Barracks in Gilgil town, the base of 5KR, will be the focus of today’s commemorations. 5KR, established in 1897, is the second oldest unit of the military.