Words: John-Allan Namu
Pictures: Sam Munia & John-Allan Namu
Video: Sam Munia
12:15 PM: It was the kind of heat that should have darkened the complexions of the many brown faces clumped in small groups in the middle of a hot Mandera afternoon. The sun, though, wasn’t responsible for their pained expressions. Every last person gathered on the outskirts of the town had come to witness the digging up of Asnina Musa Sheikh’s grave, as if laying their eyes on her corpse would lift the shroud of mystery around her death that engulfed the town, just like the days oppressive heat.
These had been nervous times, since the discovery of her body three days earlier on December the 5th, 2015. There were reports that hers was just one of an alleged twelve bodies dumped in close proximity of one another. Then the predictable outrage that this had caused. All of it lingered, over a bed of shuffles, thuds and clattering of spades coming from a foot, then two, then four, then six feet beneath the ground.
Consultant Pathologist Dr. Dixon Mchana, flown in by the Independent Medico Legal Unit for this specific exhumation also waited close to the grave. A lot was riding on this exhumation and the autopsy that would follow, not least for the many relatives of men who have gone missing in this county.
1:10pm: A Red Cross volunteer starts handing out doctors’ masks to those around the grave. Those exhuming her have just removed the six by one board that was used to cover Asnina’s body, dug, into the right wall of the grave. It doesn’t take two seconds before the smell has leapt out. To my nose, the air smelled like what it would if drying coffee berries were mixed into a hot pile of kitchen waste. Its heft was incredible, clinging to your clothes. Women covered their mouths and noses with their hijabs. Those exhuming Asnina’s remains also started to dig more carefully, after they noticed a large pool of dark fluid gathered underneath her corpse.
I tapped Dr. Mchana on the shoulder; pointed at it and asked where it came from “It’s called purging, it comes from the abdomen.” “ You know, we start to rot from the abdomen.”
“ Did her stomach burst?”
“No, you know the organs are loosing fluid as they are being decomposed by bacteria. We all have bacteria in the abdomen, that makes the tissue in our body decompose.”
Purging of a corpse happens between 48 and 72 hours after death; not usually a good sign for a pathologist trying to determine the cause of a persons death, especially, one said to have been as violent as Asnina’s.
“You know, in the death of a lady we always check for signs of sexual assault,” he says.
“Semen is contained inside the birth canal. When Purging happens the abdomen is distended and the pressure pushes it out, pouring out the semen. Skin slippage (the peeling of skin after death) would also mask superficial wounds.”
“In fact if you look (at Asnina’s corpse) now, you’ll find that the Vagina is coming out, the anus is coming out, because they generate pressure.”
Determining whether Asnina may have been sexually assaulted (and by whom) this far into the decomposition of her corpse will now be impossible.
“Based on the purging of her body, which takes 48 to 72 hours, I’d say she had been dead for four days.”
Those four days, especially in Mandera, where bodies decompose faster due to the heat, would notionally be the crucial difference between obtaining strong evidence about her death, and her death becoming yet another mystery to be whispered about. The operative word there is notionally. So much already stands between deaths and investigations in the North, that you’d have to presume that a standing procedure in determining causes of death in the North exist. Dr. Mchana’s role in the traditional chain of evidence is just one link; important, but ultimately of little use if it is disconnected from every other link of information that it should be. With claims of extrajudicial killings being on the rise in the counties of the north, this is an all too familiar reality. The story of Asnina’s disappearance, then death, then the treatment of her body afterwards tells us why.
Eyewitnesses claim that four days earlier on Thursday the 2nd of December, at about 1:15pm, Asnina was picked up and bundled into an unmarked vehicle by a group of not more than four men, in full view of all her fellow stall operators at the town’s main market place. She ran a food kiosk there. Once the car drove off, a KDF Armored Personnel Vehicle that had been perched at the edge of the market slowly followed the unmarked car. That same evening, her father, Omar Mohammed made a report of her disappearance to the local police. Her name was now part of an open inquest file. Four days later, on the morning of the 6th of December 40 kilometers away in Omar Jillow, it’s said that a herdsman was grazing his goats when he saw her body, half jutting out of the ground.
It’s alleged that he saw twelve more mounds like Asnina’s.
Not long afterwards, her picture sprang up on the Internet; and predictably, news of her death went viral. On the ground, police took her body to the Mandera County Mortuary, which sits at the corner furthest from the gate of the Mandera County hospital. The officer who filed in the details of her death in the Death register wasn’t one for details. Her bio data was in order. So were her age and her profession, and the fact that she was a resident of Mandera. No details on how long she had lived in Mandera. In the column under which her the primary and secondary causes of death should have been filed, an empty space stared back at us. The location where her body had been found had been filled in three times; first as Wajir, then cancelled out, then Mandera, and finally, Arabiya. Flipping through the death register, I found the same issues, right from the first page. Even slain police officers, I found, weren’t given the dignity of having the cause of their deaths filled out in full. Two such entries made in early 2015 had the page with the cause of death field torn out, only revealing half the story of how these two men died: “Anti-Terror…gun shot…”
The mortuary’s facilities didn’t inspire any hope that any credible autopsy could take place here. Cold rooms that had never been connected to power, empty chemical cabinets and dusty tap handles told me that the only item that had been used with any frequency in that room was the death register.
“We literally had to move from one hardware shop to another to assemble crude equipment for the opening of her body,” Dr. Mchana later told me on phone.
Right out of the gate, it seemed as if, by default, the investigation into Asnina’s death wouldn’t get off the ground; but just as indicated by the state of the death register, hers wasn’t a unique set of circumstances.
“We are Muslim, we don’t do autopsies, we bury our dead as soon as possible”. Versions of this statement are repeated to me throughout this day; the day of her exhumation for that very purpose, explaining in part the tragic irony that the residents of Mandera found themselves in, and why the county’s only mortuary was a room full of cobwebs. The fidelity to Koranic laws around the treatment of the dead played a large role in making the investigation into Asnina’s death even more blurry. Not that it would have been of much use to the investigation, but after Asnina’s body was discovered, it was taken to the mortuary.
“The resident’s marched into the hospital and took her body for burial by force” Dr. Abdi Maalim, the county hospitals health services director tells me.
“They leave their dead to fate. It’s the biggest hindrance here.”Dr. Mchana’s parting shot to our follow-up conversation.
Asnina’s autopsy took place a hundred metres from her grave, in a villager’s hut neighbouring the community graveyard. It was heading to three p.m., and the majority of people who had gathered to witness the exhumation shifted their focus once she was out of the ground, and bundled themselves into the many vehicles that were also driven to the scene. This time they headed 40 Kilometres out to Omar Jillow, where Asnina’s body was found, allegedly alongside twelve other shallow graves. Many of them were relatives of young men who have gone missing since April 2015, the month of Al Shabaab’s most brutal attack on Kenyan soil – the Garissa University attack.
The seeming correlation between the disappearances and the aftermath of the attack may not have been apparent to them, but the Kenyan National Commission On Human Rights picked it up. In it’s report, “The Error of Terror”, the KNCHR says its initial investigations found that there were at least 25 extra judicial deaths and 81 disappearances of predominantly young, Kenyan-Somali men from the three counties of Northern Kenya – Garissa, Wajir and Mandera.
“For us in terms of chain of custody, this is the closest in terms of linking the families, the victims and the perpetrators.” KNCHR’s second in command George Morara’s statement underscoring just how seriously the commission was taking the possibility of finding yet more evidence of murder in the North.
The discovery of Asnina’s body and the rumours of the shallow graves would be proof positive of a policy that the Kenya Police Service and the Kenya Defense Forces have strenuously denied. So in the convoy heading to Omar Jillow, Morara had his own vehicle.
We hung back, wanting to talk a little more to Dr. Mchana before he begun examining Asnina’s corpse, so when we got to Omar Jillow, the people who had got there before us had already started digging up any mound of earth that seemed to have been disturbed. Every now and again, your nostrils would latch onto that same smell from Asnina’s grave, that you would be convinced that another corpse lay somewhere in the scruff of bushes and fledgling grass blades.
The sun and temperatures were lowering, but the anguish of family members of some of those who were missing rang out each time a spade hit the ground, hope of finding a loved one rising and falling with every shovel full of red soil. Statuesque administration police officers watched the commotion, while CID officers marked every site that had been dug with a torn page from a square ruled book impaled on a twig.
Two hours into the search, the County Commissioner, Frederick Sishe calls a press conference. The leadership of Mandera County flanks him. Surrounding him are our cameras and the reporters who made it to the scene. Surrounding us are the members of Parliament from different parts of Mandera. With a playful smile on his lips he announces in perfect coastal Swahili that the search has been called off for the day, admonishing Citizen Television for erroneously running with a 1pm story saying that another body had been discovered, when it was in fact Asnina’s body that was being exhumed.
“You have seen for yourselves that there are no additional bodies, there was just that body belonging to the lady which was found.”
Just one body.
I ask him whether the police have any leads into the disappearance of tens of men and women from Mandera.
“ As far as I am concerned, in the inquiry file, we only have one case, as I am standing here today. The rest is hearsay.”
“All of the families gathered here haven’t reported?”
“When you report, there is a record that is kept, and the records that I have show that we only have one case.”
The crowd of families shifts uneasily after that statement. I hear some muffled insult from behind me. Mandera County Senator Billow Kerrow jumps in:
“There have been many cases of people we know, our family members who have been picked up, even inside Mandera town.”
“The problem that we face here in Mandera,” he continues, “is that whenever any family reports anything to the police, especially to do with (disappearances regarding) terrorism, it becomes extremely difficult for them to be listened to, let alone for a file to be opened. You’d be lucky if you went to report, if you got away yourself, so that’s why people are afraid. The furthest they go is to make a report to the police and get an OB (Occurrence book) number.”
The case of Asnina’s disappearance tells this story. The same evening that Asnina was picked up/disappeared (depending on who you ask), her cousin reported it to the Mandera Police Station. In late January, I called Asnina’s family members to check if anything had happened since. They said the last time the police told them anything was when they reported that Asnina had gone missing.
When her body was discovered, the police were notified, and played a part in the taking of her body to the mortuary. Beyond that, it’s difficult to tell whether they were interested in finding out who killed Asnina. This is based on the exhumation order that was granted on the 8th of December to exhume her remains as well as the alleged remains of others said to have been buried near her in Omar Jillow.
For any exhumation to take place in Kenya (for police investigations especially), an exhumation order must be issued by a court with jurisdiction in the area of the exhumation. In the case where a death is suspected to have occurred because of a crime, the request needs to be done by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in that area.
“The DCIO fills out the P23A form and gives it to the doctors who then order the exhumation” KNCHR’s Morara explained.
All this happened in Asnina’s case. Was it on the initiative of the DCI in Mandera? No, it wasn’t. The Independent Medico-Legal Unit paid for the lawyer who made the request. Dr. Mchana, the consultant pathologist who performed the autopsy on Asnina was contracted by IMLU. On the day of the exhumation, everyone was at the site a clear hour before the Investigating Officer got there. In spite of the seeming lethargy from the government, people were hopeful that at least in Asnina’s case there would be some evidence to salvage.
When Internal Security Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery addressed the matter of the alleged mass graves days later, he would, after saying that Asnina cooked for the Al Shabaab then fled across the border, say this, as he shrugged his shoulders:
“We don’t know who killed her.”
The emphasis on her alleged past as a cohort of the Al Shabaab implied that it could have been them who went after her, forced her into a Probox in the middle of the market, in the middle of the day. It could indeed have been them who did this. However, we may never know, and the whole point of an investigation is to know whodunit.
The Internal Security Cabinet Secretary’s statement didn’t seem take into account the allegations of disinterest of the local police administration in investigating other similar cases brought to them by the public in Mandera, the collapsed infrastructure that would help investigate crimes like these, or even the fact that there are three children who depended on Asnina that may, at some point in their lives, want answers about what happened to their mom. Dr. Mchana’s preliminary report said that a blow to the head killed Asnina; that the cause of her death was assault. She died in a hot place, and the murder trail is going cold.