Officers’ bullets broke my body and killed my dreams

It was supposed to have been a fairly routine day during a short break from school.

Wake up early in the morning, take a quick breakfast and accompany his mother and twin brother to the farm.

Things were panning out as planned for 17-year-old John Kairia until the trio went home for lunch break.

Then everything went terribly wrong.

Within a few minutes, several bullets had been pumped into the teenager’s body with a hail of others fired in his direction missing their target. 

FATEFUL DAY

Ten years later, Mr Kairia, now 27, can only shake his head when the Nation asks him about the fateful day that changed his life forever —  still amazed he survived the horrific incident of mistaken identity in a commando-style raid involving heavily armed detectives storming his Kiamwangi village in Nyeri County.

The close brush with death left Mr Kairia with lifelong injuries, including a partially paralysed right arm and a troublesome back and leg even after nearly a year of confinement to a hospital bed.

Mr Kairia recalls the day vividly. It was March 16, 2007. He and his twin brother Mathenge Mwangi were home for the mid-term break.

Both were Form Two students at Kiamwangi Secondary School.

“On that day we woke up early because we wanted to help our mother to weed a farm we had leased some distance from home. We worked through the morning and returned home mid-afternoon,” he says.

SHOPPING

When they got home, the twins retreated to their “cube” — a small house that they shared — to catch up on their schoolwork as their mother prepared lunch.

“At some point mum called out saying she wanted somebody to send to the shop. Whenever she wanted one of us to run an errand for her, she’d leave it open-ended and it was up to one of us to volunteer. That day I volunteered,” Mr Kairia says.

Since he had not cleaned up since returning from the farm, he picked a pair of slippers and retreated to the back of the house where there was a stream.

He recalls seeing his father, Mr Mwangi Ndeethi, repairing the roof of their main house.

Suddenly, he heard the roar of a convoy of Peugeot 504 vehicles speeding down the dusty road by their home. He counted five of them.

SHOCKED

He was shocked when the vehicles turned into their compound and dozens of plainclothes officers, all armed with pistols and assault rifles, sprung out. Alarmed, he retreated behind the house away from the view of the intruders.

“They went straight for my father and dragged him down the ladder. They started shouting at him and accused him of sheltering gangsters. They wrestled him to the ground, raining blows and kicks on him,” he says.

Still shocked by the turn of events, Mr Kairia slipped through a fence into a neighbour’s compound where he imagined he could witness the unfolding movie-like scene in safety.

Meanwhile, his brother, attracted by the commotion, appeared at the doorway. Without hesitation, several police officers opened fire shooting in his direction.

SUBDUED TARGET

“My brother ducked back to the room and decided to lie on the floor. The officers continued shooting, spraying the house with bullets. To date, when I close my eyes, I can still see the flying mixture of dust and splinters of timber. I thought he was dead.”

When they were apparently satisfied they had subdued their target, the officers stopped firing. It was then that his dazed but unharmed brother emerged holding his school identity card and shouting he was not a criminal.

Then one of the officers spotted Mr Kairia standing in the neighbour’s compound. “That’s him! Shoot him!” an order rang out. The schoolboy took to his heels heading for the neighbour’s napier grass field.

“Bullets were flying and landing everywhere around me. When I think of the intensity, I think of a hailstorm. I didn’t know I had been hit until I collapsed to the ground not far away from where a neighbour, Mama Chiku, was working. “

STOPPED FIRING

Once the teenager fell to the ground, the officer stopped firing and approached, guns at the ready. To this day, Mr Kairia believes he owes his life to Mama Chiku.

In a moment of rare courage, she jumped on top of the teenager and shouted at the officers: “If you are going to kill this innocent boy, you have to kill me first!”

The standoff allowed time for villagers who had heard the gunshots to get to the scene.

The twins were  popular in the area and villagers, including the local chief, told off the police for saying the boys were criminals.

Meanwhile, Mr Kairia was still conscious but motionless, blood pouring out from the many wounds on his body.

HOSPITAL

From then on, it was a mad rush to save his life.

Ironically, it was the police, after realising their mistake, who offered to drive the teenager to Karatina District Hospital with some suspicious villagers insisting on accompanying them.

Mr Kairia was first to be admitted to Karatina District Hospital with more than a dozen bullet wounds, prompting his transfer to Nyeri Provincial General Hospital for specialised treatment.

At the time, doctors feared he had suffered damage to the spinal cord because he could not move his limbs, but his condition gradually improved. 

TRAIL

“After the bullets were removed, I started on a long and painful healing process that saw me stay in hospital until towards the end of the year. Even after I was discharged, I had to go for therapy for several years,” he says.

To this day, Mr Kairia is not sure what led the police to their home in what was an apparently well-coordinated operation.

The police admitted they were on the trail of a dangerous and armed criminal named Mathenge, like Mr Kairia’s twin brother.

They had been chasing the suspect the whole day, they claimed. They further argued that the schoolboy was wearing a shirt similar that worn by the fleeing suspect.

INVESTIGATIONS

Nyeri-based Nation journalist Stephen Munyiri, who visited the home shortly after the incident, reconstructs the scene of a battleground where guns had just fallen silent.

“Hundreds of spent cartridges littered the compound. The timber walls of the boy’s house and banana trees in the vicinity had been shredded by bullets. It was as if a small war had been fought in the home,” he recalls.

Enquiries by theNation revealed that Nyeri police headquarters has no records of investigations into the incident having ever been carried out.

All Mr Kairia recalls is some people claiming to be police officers once visited him in hospital and asked him a few questions.

He says his parents are simple village folks and they had no idea where to start in search of justice on his behalf.

SCATTERED DREAMS

“My parents are peasants. They were preoccupied with getting money for hospital bills and medicine. There was also the cost of daily bus fare to visit me in hospital. Things were so bad that at one point they had to sell a water pump which was their lifeline as farmers. By the time I got out of hospital, anything of value at home had been sold.”

When he reported back to school, things were no longer the same. Whereas he and his brother used to alternate between position 1 and 2 in class, his grades nosedived.

“I was in pain most of the time and I was also trying to get the nightmare behind me. I was out of school for weeks on end attending therapy. Sometimes the pain was so bad I just couldn’t get out of bed. It wasn’t surprising that I scored a D in the final exams.”

He might have lived to tell the story, but his life was changed, forever. His D grade scattered his dreams for further education.

BLEAK FUTURE

Vocational training was out of the question as a result of his partially paralysed right hand and a troublesome back.

Even more frustrating for him is that while young men of his age often get casual jobs on farms and at construction sites, these income- generating avenues are closed to him because of his physical challenges.

The only skills he has are video shooting and editing taught to him by a generous relative. He occasionally gets shooting and editing jobs but these are far between because he does not have his own equipment.

He is an accomplished keyboard player and, once in a while, he performs in churches and social gatherings for a modest fee — and he still has to hire the equipment.

He concludes the interview by describing his future in one word: Bleak.

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