KILLED IN THE LINE OF DUTY – Woes of soldiers’ widows
Mercy Chebet, 28 Mercy Chebet was still fresh from a Caesarian section delivery when the father of her child was killed in a terrorist attack. Their first and only child
Mercy Chebet, 28
Mercy Chebet was still fresh from a Caesarian section delivery when the father of her child was killed in a terrorist attack. Their first and only child was just two weeks and a few days old when her husband, Victor Givonde, was killed.
Prior to his death, Victor had spent just four days with the newborn before being recalled for duty in Lamu. Mercy explains that all through the pregnancy, delivery and the days following the birth of their daughter, Victor took up the role of a father masterfully. And when it was time to report to Lamu, as they awaited dispatch to Somalia, Victor begrudgingly bid his fiancée and daughter goodbye with a promise that he would be back soon. He died the following day, December 3, 2017, after the escort car he was in hit a landmine.
“Looking at it in hindsight, Victor never really wanted to go to Somalia since he wanted to spend more time with his daughter. He had asked for a leave extension but his 30-day leave period had elapsed. He promised to report then come back home after two weeks. Two weeks later, he was back home. Only this time, he was in a coffin,” Mercy recalls.
She first learned of his death when their landlord in Gilgil called her. She was at Victor’s parents’ home in Western at that time.
“Victor had paid rent before he left and it was still too early in the month. I wondered what he was calling me for and almost ignored his call,” she says.
Upon receiving the call, the landlord told her someone had come to the house to deliver the news of her fiancé’s passing. She called Victor’s best friend Brian Lilumbi who confirmed the news.
“That morning, Victor had called to tell me he had been assigned to an escort car. He loved to text and call me. Later that day when he hadn’t called and my calls were going unanswered, I knew something was amiss; it was so unlike him,” she narrates.
It was such a tough time that she went into depression. She had a newborn, no job and had lost the love of her life.
Thankfully, Mercy was surrounded by family and friends who held her hands through it all. She is ever so grateful to the Kenya Defense Forces, whom she says took care of all the burial expenses.
“What they do to the widows of the fallen soldiers is just commendable. They have held my hand every step of the way even as I await compensation,” she says.
Mercy has since gotten a job in Nairobi for she says life has to go on. She initially had no place to stay and left her baby with her mum back in Kericho, as she acclimatised herself with her new job and location.
“My mum is an angel. She is the pillar of my life. Without her I do not know how things would have been,” she reveals her face lighting up.
While Victor’s death is still fresh and raw, Mercy is composed as she narrates his death. She looks strong, and to all appearances, she has overcome it. But to her, she is far from healing.
“I am still in denial. Sometimes I feel like he will come back. When the soldiers with whom he was posted came back from Somalia last year, part of me still hoped he would be among them,” she says.
She also suffers episodes of extreme loneliness.
“It is worse at night, as that is when it hits me that he is here no more and I am all alone. It does not help that my baby resembles him so much. I look at his pictures and cry myself to sleep,” she narrates.
She, however, says that she is trying to pick up all the pieces. She belongs in a KDF widows support group where they share and offload all their frustrations.
“Victor’s death has taught me the fragility of life and to never take anyone for granted. He was totally healthy. Yet one moment he was here, the next he was dead and gone. I haven’t even thought of dating again at the moment, as I am so scared of losing another person,” she reveals.
Life has dealt her a major blow, but through the loneliness, grief she maintains that God has a plan for her.
“Being strong is my only option, if I give up, what will happen to my daughter?” she poses.
Martha Chege, 30
Martha Chege met Josiah Kamau Chege nearly a decade ago on a trip to the coast while on a break from doing business in South Africa. Connected by the fact that they were both from Nakuru, they quickly became friends.
“He was working in the military, 15KR, based in Mombasa. I liked that he was tall and dark and had an amazing smile. The fact that he was a soldier also made me feel safe. We got married a little while later,” shares Martha.
In 2012, Josiah got enlisted for the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and went to Somalia where he stayed for a year before coming back for a while. They got their first-born son, Vidic, during that break.
The couple got their second son a few years later. Towards the end of 2016, Josiah had to go back to war-torn Somalia. Martha remembers how Josiah had left in high spirits as the couple was expecting their third child.
“He really wanted a baby girl so he could name her after his mother who had passed on when he was very young. He was so excited that he had even bought me a car,” Martha narrates.
On the night of January 26, 2017, they spoke on phone about their family and plans for when he would come back home, something that was their norm.
“He kept thanking me for being a good mother to our children and I could hear his excitement over the child we were expecting,” she says wistfully.
She woke up with a start on the morning of January 27 when she realised that her husband hadn’t called, as was the norm. “At exactly 6am every morning, he would call so that I could wake the nanny to prepare Vidic for school. So I called him and he didn’t pick. I tried again an hour later and nothing. I knew something was amiss,” she recalls.
Soon after, a stream of phone calls started coming in with everyone asking if she had spoken to her husband. She then called her husband’s best friend who informed her of an attack in Somalia and asked her to switch on the TV.
“We’d spoken with Josiah about his camp, Kolbiyow, many times before and that was the word blasted on the screen as breaking news. Although things looked bad, I had some hope,” says Martha.
Even then, she could barely sleep that night. The next morning, she resorted to calling Kamau’s bosses who kept taking her in circles. With the help of family, she pressured one of his bosses who assured her of a report the next day.
“That was the moment I knew that he was gone. Which other report could it be? If he was injured, they would have told me to go see him at the hospital,” she says somberly.
She still remembers how she was in a daze when several military officers showed up at her door the following day to break the news to her. According to her, even when you are aware of death looming, it is still an indescribable feeling when you get the news that the cruel hand of death has snatched someone you love.
“Every now and then he would remind me about the nature of his job but I was still in shock as never thought any harm would come to him. He had actually told me that if I ever got visitors from the military, they would be bearing news of his death. When they confirmed my fears, I was beyond hysterical,” shares Martha who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time.
She got even more heartbroken when his friends started posting his pictures online to mourn him. At some point she even contemplated suicide to join him. Thankfully for her, her family and the military were there for her and took charge of everything, including the burial.
“The military was so supportive. I had ladies who would come pick me for counselling appointments and they were there with my family when I gave birth to our daughter on March 3, 2017. This was one of the hardest things to deal with given how excited Josiah would have been to hold his daughter and named after his beloved mother. It was also so unfortunate that my daughter never got to meet her father,” says Martha tearing up.
Although her family from both sides has been supportive especially Kamau’s aunt and father, and she got due compensation three months after Kamau’s death, it is still a sore spot.
“It gets lonely sometimes and all I can think of is him. In those moments, I reread our chats. I still can’t go to church but God has given me the strength to go on. At least now I can speak about him without going into a crying fit. I still worry a lot about our children,” she says adding that she is not opposed to a new relationship although the person would have to be accepting of her children.
Besides the reality of losing her partner, losing friends has also become part of her life as some of them are wary of associating with widows.
“My support system is made up of my family and a network of other widows. We meet up once in a while and we support each other, sometimes financially because majority are still in their twenties. We understand each other better,” she concludes.
Esther Jesca Otieno, 29
Rendered a widow in 2017 at the tender age of 27 when her husband Felix Angong’a Onyango passed on, Esther Jesca Otieno has seen the tough side of life. Theirs was a happy marriage and her husband ensured that Esther and her child did not lack anything.
She knew Felix long before they started dating as they were family friends. After completing her high school education, the two started dating. This culminated in marriage when they tied the knot in a civil wedding in Nakuru in 2012. It was a dream come true for Esther even as she had to contend with his absence as he often left for missions as his job with the Kenya Defense Forces demanded. Even then, whenever he was around, he made sure he made up for all the lost time.
Initially, Esther had her fears when her husband left for missions but this were quickly allayed as he always came back. Then came the day her husband left home never to return.
“As part of a training to prepare them for a mission in Somalia, my husband had to go to Boni Forest in Lamu for a three-week training,” she explains. It was here that Felix met his death as his platoon (a subdivision of a company of soldiers) was attacked by terrorists. This was in October 2017.
“I knew of his death after I had gone to pick my child from school. On nearing my house, I saw a group of soldiers near my gate. That is when it hit me that my husband may have been injured or dead. Still, I hoped and prayed that he had only been injured and that they had brought him home,” she says.
However, from the somber mood that surrounded the soldiers, she instinctively knew something terrible had happened. Her fears were confirmed when the soldiers broke the news of her husband’s death. She was shattered. Her husband had served the army for 11-and-a-half years. Their son, Cornel Drake Angong’a, was only three years old and to this day has never understood where his father went. Esther plans to explain this to him when the time is ripe.
Esther had built her life around her husband and with his death, she had nothing to cling on to. To add insult to the injury, she doesn’t get support from her husband’s family.
“My late husband’s family has neglected me and my child and to make matters worse, they fought tooth and nail for the little we got from the government as compensation,” she narrates shedding tears.
Her son is the only reason she faces life with courage and determination as she is all he has. Her late husband was the breadwinner of the family and Esther has now to rise to the occasion to ensure that their son doesn’t feel the void, at least financially. To this end, Esther ventured into mitumba business. While this does not sufficiently meet all their needs, it helps her to put her son through school as well as put food on the table.
There is also light at the end of the tunnel for the young widow as she is yet to receive insurance benefits following her husband’s death. While this has been long in coming, she is optimistic that it will eventually be paid. This, she says, will come in handy when paying her son’s school fees, which is her biggest expenditure yet.
“When my son started school, my husband was very categorical about him getting quality education, which does not come cheap. When Felix died, it was upon me to ensure that his wish is fulfilled so I did not transfer my son to a more affordable school. Furthermore, since his father had passed on, I did not want to disrupt his life any further by getting him away from his friends,” she explains.
Esther has since joined a support group for widows of the uniformed, which in a way has played a part in encouraging her to push on as they usually meet and encourage each other.