Major Denis Girenge, the commander of the Kenya Defence Forces camp at Kulbiyow that was attacked by Al-Shabaab on January 27 has for the first time given a blow-by-blow account of the battle against the estimated 1,000 militants.
The major, whose narrative was backed by footage shot by a drone that the military showed to the Sunday Nation, said a day earlier he received a call from an officer based at the Hulugho camp manned by KDF soldiers, who reported strange movements about 12km away that they suspected were Al-Shabaab militants.
“We concluded that they were planning to attack either my camp or Hulugho because from that point, we were 14km away while Hulugho was 18 kilometres away,” said Major Girenge.
He added: “I decided to send out a patrol at night, 5km north of my position so that they could spot an enemy approaching.
"At 6 pm I called my men and briefed them. We reconfigured our defence to replace the men who had gone out.”
At 3am one of the sentries informed him about some movements, like a heavy vehicle was moving.
Major Girenge estimated it was 8km away.
“After some minutes the movement stopped and there was none at all. We decided we should call surveillance guys.
"We had tried to call the locals to ask if they had spotted anything but none of their phones were going through,” he said.
The surveillance team at Hulugho dispatched Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, better known as drones, for the surveillance mission.
The drones were airborne within 10 minutes and from his command centre at the camp, the Major was monitoring images relayed from the skies.
“At around 3.30am I saw a sizable group in a bush, about 80 guys and it’s like they were receiving a briefing. We got the grid and laid our weapons including mortars and hit the place,” said Major Girenge.
It disrupted their meeting and they all rose and started running towards the camp.
“We were about 4km away. We could see them from the drone images.
"We kept on hitting but the group kept on increasing and we established that many other people had crept in, in groups during the day and were hiding in the bushes,” added Major Girenge.
At that point he called his commander in Manda and informed him that the numbers of the attackers was increasing by the minute despite the relentless firing.
The group then stopped at a village called Bulaqoqon, which is about 1.5 kilometres from the camp, and started marching towards the camp after about 10 minutes.
“At this point their number was a thousand plus. But before they began moving again, they all bowed to the ground and started praying.
"We could see all that from the drone. We hit them at that point and they started moving,” Major Girenge said.
By 5.15am the group was 800 metres away from the camp’s first line of defence positions.
“I ordered my men to open their small arms, and start hitting them. All this time they had not fired back. Until about 5.45am they fired the first shot.
"So I reported to CO (commanding officer) that we have established contact. My commander told me he has already scrambled aircrafts and they would be taking off,” said the major.
He went on: “The battle was on and everybody was busy. One soldier called me on radio and his exact words were Afande iko VBIEDs zinakuja, (Sir there are Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices approaching).”
A VBIED is simply a bomb on wheels.
“I told him to engage 84 mm calibre weapon which we use to destroy heavy vehicles. He fired and it exploded outside.
"The explosion was so massive and that changed the scenario. It created a gap and suicide bombers followed,” said Major Girenge.
The explosion created a massive impact because fragments were felt in a radius of 200 meters.
Another two VBIEDS approached the camp but they never penetrated the defence lines after they were taken out by high calibre weapons.
“The explosion was massive and I believe that is what led to the number of casualties we sustained,” added Major Girenge.
Sitting on a bench outside his ward at the Defence Forces Memorial Hospital in Nairobi, he continued to narrate the events without batting an eyelid.
The battle-hardened soldier has fought in Somalia starting with his time at the rank of Captain.
He was in Kismayu in 2012 and the company he was leading had also taken Fafadun from Al-Shabaab in the same year.
Col Kenneth Mungai answers questions during an interview with Nation at Defence Forces Memorial Hospital in Nairobi on February 4, 2017. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP
At 6.15am one of the pilots called him to say that he was getting into the aircraft and would be overhead in 30 minutes.
“At 7;45 am I heard the first choppers overhead. By 7am all guns were silent and I could hear a few remnants shouting as they pulled their bodies and run away.
"I called Army operations to say firing had ceased and we are consolidating and asked choppers to come in and help casualties,” added Mjr Girenge.
By 9am rescue helicopters had come and I was among the first to be airlifted.
He sustained gunshot wounds on his left arm, legs and lower abdomen.
Asked about the contradicting reports that the camp was overrun, the major burst out in laughter.
“I was at the camp until the last minute. If it was overrun I would not be here right now talking to you. I would be somewhere dead.
"We defended the camp to the last minute. It is Al-shabaab who ran away,” he said.
Regarding images posted by Al-Shabaab terrorist and their sympathisers, showing burning military tanks, he added.
“There were no tanks at Kolbiywo so those images are from somewhere else. They left immediately the aircrafts started firing.
"If anybody would have withdrawn from that camp, it would have fallen. We would be having a different story today.
"The only people who were out are those who were on patrol. I have since established they are well,” said Mjr Girenge.
There were also claims that the command had fallen and the commanding officer either dead or taken prisoner by Shabaab.
He said: “I am the OC (Officer Commanding) and so claims that I died, that I went with Shabaab should not even be considered. I am right here.”
The Major, together with another officer of equal rank, and three Captains, commanded a total of 250 soldiers at the camp.
The core unit, comprised of the C-Company of the 15 KR based at Mariakani.
Other supporting units were Battery Pac Howitzer (artillery battery that specialises in heavy weapons), Section mortars and Engineers.
The team was deployed to Somalia on December 28, last year.
Official KDF reports shows 21 personnel died.
The initial report said nine KDF personnel were killed and the senior medical officer at the military hospital Col (Dr) Kenneth Mungai said 12 others died while undergoing treatment.
He added: “We received 44 personnel with injuries. Most of them were bullet injuries. We have since discharged 20 of them. So we still have others in hospital. Most of them required surgery.”
Major Girenge dismissed the Al-Shabaab propaganda figure of more than 50 dead as the usual terrorists’ trick of “blowing things out of proportion”.
Major Girenge is ready to go back to Somalia after leaving hospital.
The narrative given to the Sunday Nation was backed by drone footage that the military said gave a true picture of the events.
Major Girenge came back with a souvenir that will forever remind him of the war.
It is his smart phone with a bullet hole right through the middle.
Corporal Amani Ramadhan, another battle hardened soldier saw four of his men go down.
He was the section commander and in charge at the first line of defence.
“We were well prepared, the defence was organised. This was not a surprise because we had information. In terms of equipment we were prepared,” said Corporal Ramadhan.
When the first VBIED arrived at 6am, he ordered the men under his command to shoot the driver.
“The aim was to kill the driver and unfortunately we were not able to. After two minutes there was a heavy and loud explosion and it suddenly became dark like the night.
"All trees around were uprooted. I was only 30 metres away. I think I was the first victim. I lost a finger,” he said.
He, however, continued fighting along with a colleague he identifies as Sergeant Asiz, who was firing using a mounted machine gun.
“He told me he had fired the last bullet in the belt. I gave him another belt. He was shot as he loaded it. But he stood up and went on.
"He fired again before he was shot thrice. Then Corporal Mwakio was using an M4 and I told him to drop it and take over at the machine gun. He spotted another VBIED,” said Cpl Ramadhan.
He went on: “I told him to shoot the driver because if they came closer we would die. He shot the target and it exploded at a good distance. There was a third VBIED and it took another direction.”
Unfortunately Corporal Mwakio was also shot thrice and fell.
Two men were left with him Private Nguyo and Corporal Ouma who from their positions they were not able to take the machine gun.
They also died in battle.
As the Corporal lay still injured, he saw Al-shabaab fighters load bodies of their dead fighters on two lorries.
He estimates more than 200 bodies were loaded on trucks.
“At no time was the camp overran. They ran away. If it was overran then we would not be here. Rescue aircraft were able to land. To me in my estimate we killed over 200.”
“The bodies were piled until the lorries were full. Those are the only ones I saw but there were other,” said Corporal Ramadhan.
- Major Denis Girenge speaks to the Nation at Defence Forces Memorial Hospital in Nairobi on February 4, 2017. He survived the attack in Kulbiyow.