By Judith Mwobobia
“Many a veteran’s wife has said, “What’s wrong with you? We were just at your mother’s funeral and you didn’t shed a tear. You didn’t even look sad. You just looked like a block of stone.” Excerpt from Odysseus in America
On an otherwise fine day in March 2016, the shine and sparkle of a quiet village in Busia County was muted by an unfolding event. The villagers woke up to the death of one of their own. A man held in high esteem. A man who had fought for his country and came back home alive. What made his death that much more poignant was its manner. Death by his own hand. Joash Ochieng’ Magar, 52 who had just come home from a mission in Somalia against the Al Shabaab had taken his own life. He was reported to have suffered from some mental problems that had him sent home on indefinite leave.
He is one among an alleged rising number of soldiers in Kenya who have taken their own lives.
Cecilia Omondi, an attractive young woman is a now a widow. She could barely hold back tears as she recounted her story on BBC’s “Focus on Africa” programme earlier this year . “When my husband came back from a mission in Somalia, I knew that there was going to be a problem. He kept saying ‘I am going to kill myself and no one cares about me.’ ” He eventually committed suicide.
Former Special Forces officer Byron Adera commands any room he walks into. Tall, well built and with a presence that spells a calm authority, he is a man that has seen and survived the ravages of war.
Byron joined the Kenya Army as a cadet in 2005. In March 2011, he was among the first KDF soldiers to fight the war on terror in Somalia
Unfortunately, in July 2011 he sustained a leg injury and had to come back home.
“I didn’t receive any counselling. I was earlier deployed in Mt Elgon too and didn’t receive any counselling either. No one came to talk to me. I had to deal with my nightmares and I took to the bottle to deal with them. I could drink anyone under the table,” he reveals with a chuckle.
“I eventually pulled myself together. Most soldiers cope quietly with their issues because they don’t want to seem weak or like failures. There is a big assumption that as long as you seem functional, you are OK. Many soldiers lose their families because there should be a working structure with qualified people to know what to look out for. PTSD is real. People go out and shoot their wives or their children. Compensations are given for damages but I can’t really tell if it is sustainable or not. There also ought to be some level of sanity when it comes to compensations to families for the fallen soldiers. After all the family is really dealing with the loss of their loved one whose remains are sometimes so disfigured.”
It is with this experience in mind that the former military man started the 22 Pushup Challenge in Kenya. This is not a new concept though. It began in the US in the year 2013 to raise awareness for the 22 soldiers who commit suicide every day.
“I started the 22 Pushup Challenge with a psychologist. Individuals sign up and any funds raised go towards counselling the soldiers and their families. Participants record a video doing the 22 pushups and then ask family and friends to do the same. This creates a viral effect and it raises the global awareness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”
A soldier’s close family and friends are often the casualties of their loved one’s PTSD.
“I lost my family; my wife and son and so did many other soldiers. When family comes to visit, say in training, there is a party and everyone is happy but when the soldiers go home, it is different. They are in their own world that’s completely different from everyone’s else and you get bashed for probably being too quiet or just being different from what you used to be,” says Byron.
And besides psychological support, a soldier at work needs to feel secure in the knowledge that his family’s stability is assured as he fights his country’s war.
“Sometimes a soldier could ask for two days off work to deal with family issues and it would be denied. I couldn’t get two days to be with my wife as she gave birth to our son and only saw him when he was three weeks old. Incidences like these break up families,” he explains gravely.
The recurring theme in these stories is the lack of a working framework that takes care of the emotional health of soldiers and their families. A model that continually holds a soldier’s hand before and after a mission. One to help them cope with PTSD, a psychological disorder that results from exposure to life threatening situations.
A group of counsellors at the International Professional Counsellors Centre, moved by the recurring suicide cases, volunteered to offer free psychological support to soldiers.
Susan Gitau, one of the counsellors, says, “If I am not able to make them have a counselling centre, can I empower the officers themselves? She poses. “And this model is supposed to empower them during training, during service and they can have it during pre-deployment, deployment and post deployment,” she explains.
Maria Njambi* who asked that we not reveal her identity, is a psychologist who treats many soldiers at her Nairobi clinic. She admits to seeing many tragic cases that could be averted by better care from the army administration.
“A returning soldier is most often going to be withdrawn in temperament for many reasons. They cannot control their anger, and it scares them too. I have met many who tell me that it has crossed their minds to kill themselves or even their families. That is where counselling comes in and saves the situation. What of those that do not see a psychologist or a counsellor? Who helps them sort out their issues? And it isn’t that they do not care who they hurt, it’s just that they do not know how to handle their own feelings,” she says.
It is not only the soldiers that require support but also their families. “As happens a lot in wars, heroes die. And as one would expect, the soldier’s family would need all the support, financially, psychologically and otherwise to deal with the loss. After all, they died a death of the greatest honour- serving their country.”
“I have met widows and children of fallen soldiers and most are desperate. Besides the arduous compensation process, they are in emotional turmoil. There should be a structure to at least help them deal with their pain, after all they lost their loved one in service of the country,” Mary illuminates.
The Kenya Defence Forces has been involved in conflicts in the region for decades, either as part of peace keeping missions or as a sovereign nation, but today, it is reported that there is no working structure that takes care of the country’s returning troops. We repeatedly contacted the Ministry of Defense’s Public Affairs office for an official statement on their model, but have yet to receive a response to our requests.
In Nyeri’s Othaya sub county, a family still mourns the tragic loss of their son Maina Karari four years later. A quick glance at the homestead reveals two wooden houses, one of which was a house Karari was building at the time of his death. A house he never got to live in. His mother brings some wooden seats outside and sits a stone’s throw away on the lush green compound as her husband shares their tragic story. She keeps dabbing at her tear filled eyes and listens in to the conversation. When it gets too overwhelming, she dashes inside to compose herself. Her grief feels so raw, it almost is as if she is physically in pain.
Maina, Karari’s father lovingly handles pictures of his late son in training, and some from his son’s funeral where sad faced young men in uniform, Maina’s former comrades, carry their fallen colleague’s casket.
“He was a nice obedient church going man, and always wanted to be a soldier. So when he was selected for training, he was ecstatic. We were happy for him too. When he got enlisted to Somalia, he came back home and asked to have prayers held for him at our ACK church and off he went. He would send numerous texts to me and the family every other day, and he would always ask for prayers. The last text he sent was on the 28th of August 2012 to his sister Lydia.”
A few days later, Maina received a call from a Major Kioni, when he was informed that his son and a few others were missing. Later he received a call from his son’s phone number.
“The voice on the other end wasn’t my son’s. The caller identified himself as a member of Al Shabaab. He asked me why I allowed my son to go to war in Somalia. That they were holding many of them and they were going to kill them. That our government was lying about the numbers of soldiers killed. I have never felt such fear in my life,” his voice cracks, heavy with emotion.
On October 11th 2012, he got the call from an officer from the KDF. On the other side of the phone was a voice delivering a crushing message ; two unidentified corpses had been found buried in Kismayu, Somalia by the Al Shabaab. Karari’s was believed to have been one of them.
“We couldn’t eat or sleep. On the third day I couldn’t even walk well. The grief was insurmountable,” he says, staring off into the distance.
On 11th of December, they received positive confirmation that they could proceed with the burial of their son. That was it.
“There was no counselling done then. I wish they could offer it to the families of the fallen soldiers. That department needs to really think through their practices. They couldn’t even deliver my boy’s death certificate. They wanted me to go all the way to Eldoret to pick it up, I had to send them money to get them to send it over. Even going to Nairobi to give the DNA samples, I had to borrow money for the duration of the stay. The expense plus the emotional turmoil we were going thorough filled me with so much pain. It can be especially hard if a soldier has a wife and children. When he is the breadwinner. Gratuity and compensations take so long. Hopefully things will change,” he says pensively.
This completes our interview. Karari’s father then leads us to the grave holding his son’s remains. The protruding earth mound nestled among coffee bushes is overgrown with weeds, and with a weary face, he bends over to uproot some of them. The walk back to the homestead is a dirge sung by the gentle breeze, quiet and solemn, in contemplation of a life lost too soon. A tragedy that will stay with Maina’s family forever.
We leave his compound asking ourselves that existential question: “What is the true cost of war?” The cost is great to be sure, but it is likely paid in the theatre of torment that is a post-war soldier’s mind, and in the heavy burden of grief that many military families suffer.