The Uganda-Karamoja Girls’ Rescue Operation in Nairobi

12th January 2020


Following a flurry of concerted efforts by both media reports and civil society organisations about the trafficked girls of the Karamoja region, a lot of interest on the matter was created within both public and government spheres. Of particular concern was the Al Shabaab link. According to the New Vision daily newspaper of Uganda, dated 1st December 2019, some of the trafficked girls ended up in the hands of Al Shabaab in Somalia.

The bigger market for these tender youngsters however, is to be found in Nairobi, Kenya. The Karimojong girls tend to have a special preference for working for the Somali community only while at the same time keeping a knit code of socialization. While in Nairobi, these girls are to be found within the precincts of Eastleigh, Majengo, Pumwani, Shauri Moyo and parts of Mlango Kubwa. The migration history of the Karamoja girls into Kenya dates back for more than a decade…….after the influx of the Somali refugees into Kenya and particularly in Nairobi’s Eastleigh suburb.

The Somalia Background Context and the Al Shabaab link

In late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Somalia was particularly known for high sea piracy within the Indian Ocean; whose ransom sums involved millions of dollars in order to release hostages. It was particularly acknowledged that much of that ransom money ended up in Eastleigh where a big population of non-Kenyan Somalis were holed up under the cover of Kenya Somalis.  So popular did Eastleigh become…… (Thriving businesses and an investment hub for Somali refugees) that it was nick-named “Mogadishi Ndogo” (a Swahili word for small Mogadishu) to signify the growing presence of Somali nationals and their business interests in Kenya.

The new population of Somali’s from Somalia created a new demand for domestic workers. In order to conceal their identity, this refugee population preferred to have the Karamoja girls who would not differentiate between Somalia-Somalis and the Kenyan Somalis. In this way, the refugee population felt safe to live and engage in business as they gradually learnt how to speak Swahili and obtain identity documents using corrupt means…….this marked the first major influx of the Karimojong girls into Nairobi as their demand grew in lips and bounds in response to Somalia-Somalis’ increased population. Many of the pioneer Karimojong girls who had been brought into Kenya by Kenyan Somalis became human traffickers as Nairobi became a more lucrative Uganda export employment destination.

The older Karimojong girls assumed the role of bringing back more colleagues whenever they travelled home…….and for this, they were compensated by prospective employers or Somali agents. Gradually, some of these ladies (now grown up women) opted to become full time traffickers (for pay) and they slowly formed a network of recruiters placed at different points (at source, in Kampala, Busia Uganda, Busia Kenya and eventually Nairobi)

Following the Somalia instability in early 1990’s, a multiplicity of organised and armed groups emerged around the country and one of those was the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) who were a consolidation of the various militia war lords’ groups. The ICU was a group of Sharia courts that united themselves to form a rival administration to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia, with Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as their head. They were also known as the Joint Islamic Courts, Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), Supreme Islamic Courts Council (SICC) or the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts (SCIC).

Until the end of 2006, the ICU controlled most of southern Somalia and the vast majority of its population, including most major cities such as Jowhar, Kismayo, Beledweyne, and the capital Mogadishu. The ICU was supported by warlord Yusuf “Indho Ade” Mohamed Siad who ruled Lower Shabelle but later became defense chief of the ICU, who aided in the defeat of the Mogadishu warlords. Only the Northern regions (Puntland, Somaliland), and the furthest interior regions of the south were outside their control. In December 2006, the ICU lost much territory after defeats at the battles of Baidoa, Bandiradley, and Beledweyne, retreating to the capital, Mogadishu. On 28 December 2006, they abandoned Mogadishu, leaving the city in chaos while they moved south towards Kismayo, which allowed the TFG and Ethiopian troops to take over the city. After a stand at the Battle of Jilib, the ICU abandoned the city of Kismayo on 1 January 2007. Stripped of almost all their territory, it was speculated the ICU would pursue guerrilla-style warfare against the government but instead, hardline Islamists broke ranks from the ICU and formed Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam; among other groups to continue the war against the government.

Al Shabaab has, since 2008, undergone a major shift in the public portrayal of its ideology, likely in an attempt to court Al Qaeda (AQ) core and their supporters. Elements of the group’s leadership recast their struggle not as a regional conflict, but as part of the AQ-inspired global war against the West. Since 2008, Al Shabaab and its media wing, the al Kata’ib Foundation, created a number of websites hosting well-produced videos portraying the fighting in Somalia as part of a global conflict. These videos interspersed scenes of Al Shabaab members in combat with messages from Osama bin Laden and other AQ core leaders, promoting Somalia as an important destination for those wishing to combat the West.

Al Shabaab’s rhetoric increasingly focused on combating the “far enemy” of the United States and the African Union governments it supports in addition to the “near enemy” of the Transitional Federal Government and allied forces within Somalia. While previous interviews suggested that many of Al Shabaab’s troops were opportunistic, Somali supporters who were driven by a combination of intimidation and cash bonuses, a core of committed fighters, many of them foreign, appeared to be strongly motivated by this new terrorist ideology. Once a fundamentalist yet ultimately nationally focused organization, Al Shabaab transformed its ideological rhetoric to reflect a new emphasis on international struggle against the West, likely as a means to draw the group closer to AQ core.

The foreign factor in Al Shabaab

The strategy of Al Shabaab to adopt a global focus by aligning to Al Qaeda provided a platform to begin an expansionist ideology in order to target more countries who were considered to be sympathetic to the American cause. Many more foreign fighters joined the ranks of Al Shabaab and provided more technical input to the planning and operational contexts. The demand for brides to quench the sexual thirst of the frontline jihadists grew, hence the outsourcing of women from mainly the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

With Al Shabaab terror cells spread across the East and Horn of Africa, Eastleigh in Kenya became a sort of a ‘hub’ for the East African region. A number of terror attacks have since been launched in Nairobi, beginning with the Westgate Mall, then Garissa University and most lately, the Dusit II hotel, along Riverside. The existence of terror cells facilitates the continuous recruitment of both jihadist fighters and ladies who take up the role of being brides.

It is in the above context therefore that the Karimojong girls found themselves vulnerable to the whims of the Al Shabaab terror group.  While the initial practice was to get domestic workers for the Somali community, over time things shifted as the terror cells dupe these girls into believing that Somalia had better prospects for them. According to a CHTEA volunteer, Rashid, based at Pumwani, he asserts that all this begins with the slow faith conversion of the Karimojong girls into Islam. Once converted, it becomes easy to invite them to visit Somalia or even promise them better paying employers inside Somalia. According to Rashid, the girls accompany known Somali family members into travelling to Somalia. More enticing for the girls is the reality of being offered to fly through Wilson airport, using the “Miraa” (curt) small aircrafts. It is not clear how many Karimojong girls may have so far been trafficked to Somalia but it is undisputable that it has been an ongoing practice at Eastleigh.

According to another CHTEA Volunteer, Margaret, the Karimojong girls are not the only Ugandans at Eastleigh who exclusively work for the Somali community. The Abagisu (both young men and young women) are also of a sizeable population. The men are mainly hired to work in hotels, for errands and hand laborers. Margaret asserts that the Abagisu young men are normally converted into Islam in big numbers, hence more the reason for their dalliance with the Somali community. After developing confidence with their Somali employers, the Abagisu young men get offered to travel with Somali families to Somalia and most of them are never seen again.

The Karamoja Region of Uganda

The Push and Pull Factors: Trafficking of Karamoja Underage girls

The “push and pull” factors in Karamoja

For the longest time in the East African Community (EAC) region, the Karamoja region of Uganda (which is shared between Kenya, Uganda and the South Sudan – according to the Conflict Early Warning and Early Response Unit of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) was known to host some of the most deprived communities in the EAC region. Before the Uganda Government disarmament programme of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Karamoja region had been identified as a bedrock of violence; mainly perpetuated by incessant cattle rustling.

The Karamoja region in Uganda consists of seven districts in northeastern Uganda (Kaabong, Kotido, Abim, Moroto, Napak, Amudat and Nakapiripirit). Karamoja is classified as one of the world’s poorest areas, with high rates of malnutrition and a disproportionate number (61 percent) of its 1.2 million people, living in absolute poverty. Hunger, stunting and lack of access to food are prevalent. Food insecurity is a major and ongoing challenge and a heavy reliance on the natural resources base renders livelihoods sensitive to climate dynamics. Climate variability and change undermine the already limited resources and development in Karamoja through recurring droughts, flash floods and prolonged dry spells. Other vulnerabilities that constrain development in Karamoja stem from historical dynamics affecting current governance, including: private ownership of firearms, cattle raiding, severe environmental degradation, poor infrastructure and limited access to basic education and health services, which were adversely affected by Uganda’s civil war.

The population of Karamoja is young with the average age being 15 years (Census 2014). Out of the total population of 1.2 million people, half are females. The region has the highest total fertility rate (TFR), with women of reproductive age (15-49 years) giving birth to an average of 8 children, higher than Uganda’s of 5, and three times above the average of 3 children per woman in Kampala (UDHS, 2016). The majority of the population are child dependents which hinder adequate consumption and attainment of health, education and nutrition, keys to human capital development and household investment. Persistent high fertility and child dependency have made the region the least socially and economically developed, even among the generally poorer parts of northern Uganda as a whole.

i)  Human Development Context

According to a report entitled, “Understanding Chronic Poverty In Karamoja” (PDF). Retrieved 3 February 2016, human welfare, living conditions and quality of life of the people in Karamoja have declined considerably over the years due to various factors such as environmental issues, insecurity, marginalization, illiteracy, poor health, and poor infrastructure. Moroto and Nakapiripirit have the lowest HDI of 0.183 and Kotido has 0.194 as compared to an average of 0.4491 for Uganda.

The districts of Karamoja have the highest Human Poverty Indices (HPI) with Nakapiripirit and Moroto Districts having 63.5 percent and Kotido has 53.8 percent, compared to the national average of 37.5 percent, Central region of 31.5 percent, Northern region 46.1 percent, Western region 39.0 percent, and Eastern region 37.1 percent.

There are at least 5 regional hospitals in Karamoja, providing affordable health services to the area. The locations include Matany, Moroto, Amudat, Kotido, and Kaabong. The above report further indicates that poverty has been on the increase and according to the Karimojong, the main factors responsible for poverty include persistent poor harvest as a result of dry spells and droughts, cattle rustling and insecurity, animal death, lack of water, poor farming practices, ill health and disability, high bride price for marriage, lack of skills and unemployment, limited sources of income, poor governance, and landlessness.

Much of Karamoja remained heavily dependent on the largesse of the United Nations World Food Programme, as the region entered the second decade of the 21st century. In 2011, in the wake of the severe 2011 Eastern Africa drought, food shortages were again reported in the region as well as other areas in northern and eastern Uganda.

Karamoja and the Bulambuli district, in particular, were among the worst hit areas, with an estimated 1.2 million Ugandans affected. Droughts and dry spells affect farmers and the population, causing economic hardship for farmers and food shortages for the population and their livestock.

According to a UNFPA report released in August 2018, Uganda’s development history in the Karamoja region remains the least socially and economically, with 61 percent of the total population of 1.2 million living in poverty (UNHS, 2016/17). The region is semi-arid and experiences chronic food insecurity. For Uganda to achieve sustainable development highlighted in the second National Development Plan and Vision 2040, it is paramount to strengthen the region’s human capital competitiveness for sustainable wealth creation, employment and inclusive growth.

Development should be focused on redistributing wealth and opportunity across regions, while enabling the people of Karamoja to realize their basic human rights. To ensure that no one is left behind, there is need to focus on investments in health, education, economic opportunity and governance. Success is time-sensitive and requires vision, good leadership and harmonized actions of government, development partners, beneficiary communities and the private sector. As we appreciate the equity gaps in the Karamoja region, there is need to consistently and collaboratively explore the policy priorities to achieve equity. Leaders need to make the hard choices to meet the varying and unique levels of need and ensure pulls to the pace of human development as the rest of the country.

ii) Access to Education

Education is the foundation for human capital development, gender empowerment and behaviour change. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 aims to ensure access to quality education and the opportunity for lifelong learning for all. However, glaring disparities and inequalities in the attainment of education are seen in the Karamoja sub region. Only 0.9 percent of children aged 6-12 years are enrolled in primary school far below the central region at 12 percent. Primary Seven enrolment is also far lower at 3 percent from the rest of the country at 25 percent, thus affecting both secondary and tertiary enrolment rates.

The Karamoja secondary and tertiary Net Enrollment Ratios (NER) are at the lowest 19 and 2.6 percent among all sub regions and Kampala at 67 and 13 percent. In terms of completion, only 3.5 percent of children complete primary seven, way below Kampala at 40 percent. Over 70 percent of the population aged 10+ in Karamoja has never been to school, of whom majority are women. The overall literacy rate for Karamoja stands at only 25 percent, compared to 94 percent in Kampala, while 60 percent of women are unable to read and write.

While significant inroads have been made in reducing gender disparity in primary education, there are still challenges at the secondary and tertiary levels, which undermine the efforts to achieve gender parity at all levels of education as envisaged in the SDG4. While the NERs at the secondary school level have remained low at 41 percent for Uganda, the observed rates for Karamoja are far lower at 17 percent, with girls being more affected. Karamoja suffers from a low transition rate from primary to secondary education. With poor education, the region loses the opportunity for its girls and young people to delay on-set of child bearing, get skilled and positioned to contribute to the regions and national development

iii) Economic Opportunity

 Karamoja sub region largely depends on animal husbandry and rain fed agriculture for livelihood and employment. Young people, who constitute half of the region’s population with the energy and potential to propel economic growth are caught up in a web of unemployment, underemployment and vulnerable employment. Eighty Six percent of the young population in Karamoja have never been to school and are either not working or are in vulnerable employment compared to 5 percent in Kampala, a situation which undermines workers fundamental rights (UBOS, 2017).

The lack of decent work, experienced at an early age, compromises the population future employment prospects and frequently lead to unsuitable labour behaviour patterns that last a lifetime and foster an environment of social exclusion for young people. Evidence links unemployment to idleness of young people which potentially are risks for increased crime, mental health problems, violence, conflicts and drug abuse (UBOS, 2017).

Despite reducing national poverty, majority of the population in Karamoja is choking in poverty due to lack of employable skills among youth, limited access to markets and high dependency ratio of 141 compared to 97 nationally (UNHS, 2016/17). Cross generation marriage of women aged (12-24) years is at 5 percent, higher than 3.1 percent national average. There have also been media reports about child trafficking of especially girls to abet poverty, which is not only against human rights but place these girls under the risk of sexual abuse and gender based violence

iv)   Governance

 Improving service delivery and productivity required in the Karamoja region also calls for improved accountability and creation of an enabling social, economic and political environment. Government has put in place various policies and laws, including interventions like Universal primary and secondary education, skilling Uganda, youth and women livelihood programmes. Karamoja was also beneficiary of PRDP and NUSAF projects, as well as huge investment from development actors and UN Agencies. However, the full realization of the benefits of these programmes by the population, are constrained by the lack of full implementation of policies and laws, limited civic competence by the population to demand accountability in service delivery, lack of coordination among partners, low levels of legal literacy and awareness of human rights; and the poor quality of data at district level to inform evidence based planning and decision-making. Efforts to pull Karamoja out of inequality, should focus on building the capacity of communities, women, girls and young people to fully participate not only in the political, but in the planning, social and economic governance spaces of their region and in collection of reliable evidence. These will go a long way in fostering the spirit of public accountability and coordination in services delivery, efficient and effective use of public natural resources and the empowerment of women, girls and young people to demand their rights.

v)   Strategy for 2020 on wards

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Issue Brief 07, titled “Leaving no one behind in Karamoja”, August 2018, for Uganda to achieve the global and national development agendas within the commitment to leave no one behind, there is need for actions that tackle regional inequalities. Karamoja region is in urgent need of enough food for everybody, longer years of schooling to at least 14 years for its population to be able to acquire basic skills, fewer children dying from common diseases, manageable family sizes and a population that is able to read and write. In addition, people living in abject poverty should be significantly reduced, with no wide disparities in income distribution. Nurturing local stakeholder involvement and young people`s engagement for irreversible all-inclusive development is needed.

There is need for tailor-made equitable interventions in Karamoja tapping into the existing positive cultural aspects related to marriage, sexual relations and limiting retrogressive behaviour. UNFPA committed to advocate for sustained funding for Karamoja and to strengthen multi-sectoral coordination of population, gender and sexual reproductive health structures with government leadership so that services address all barriers people face and are available, accessible, acceptable and of good quality, so that no one is left behind.

vi)  Women’s empowerment and gender equality

Gender Based Violence and harmful practices disproportionately affect women and girls. Violence against women and girls is one of the most systematic, widespread human rights violations in Uganda. Up to 53 percent and 13 percent of women have experienced physical and sexual violence in Karamoja since age 15 (UDHS 2016). One of the factors behind these high prevalence rates is the widespread cultural acceptance of such violence. Wife battering is widely accepted, with 49 percent of women and 43 percent of men believing that it is justified for a man to beat his wife for any one of the five specified reasons. Gender based violence is known to increase vulnerability to HIV infection and ill sexual and reproductive health. Gender inequality and GBV are widespread   in Karamoja and are perpetuated by harmful cultural norms, inadequate protection of human rights, alcohol consumption, and poverty that compels girls to engage in early and non-protected sex for survival; 9.4 percent of girls aged 10-24 years reported to have experienced forced sexual intercourse (UNFPA, 2017). Young men of warrior age rape girls aged between 10 and 12 years as a way of “securing” them for marriage.

Although the extent of this traditional practice is difficult to judge, rape is cited as common thus contributing to many girls being married off as early as 10 years (Coffey 2016). This situation is made worse by the inadequacy of the health sector to provide GBV response services. Only 28 percent of the health facilities are reported to have the capacity to provide Clinical Management Rape services to survivors of SGBV. Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is also practiced, with 6.4 percent of girls from the communities of Tepeth, Pokot and Kadam ethnic groups having undergone FMC. The practice has adverse effects to sexual reproductive health of girls including difficulties in child birth, risk of suffering Obstetric fistula, development of keloids and accelerated school dropout for early marriage.

Trafficking Karimojong females to Kenya and beyond

Owing to the above vulnerability dynamics associated with the female population in the Karamoja region of Uganda, girls of as little age as 8 years have been trafficked to Nairobi, Kenya with a promise for better life and greener pastures. As the UNFPA report indicated above, there aren’t sufficient schools within the Karamoja region while those existing are wide apart making girls more vulnerable to rape and other forms of defilement and abuse.

Poor families are further pushing young girls to engage in petty errands such as collecting firewood to sell at market places where human trafficking recruiters lie in wait. This happens even as young men loiter and idle out in market places engaging in anti-social activities such as drinking local brews and pretending to be the village heroes on matters security. Since the government of Uganda carried out forceful disarmament in early 2000’s, cattle rustling became a thing of the past, hence rendered the young warriors “jobless”.

In an effort to make a meaningful sense of life, the Karimojong young women have resorted to being trafficked to Nairobi, where they engage in domestic servitude, mainly for the Somali community. Their numbers have continued to grow in the recent years and it is estimated that Nairobi alone hosts in the upwards of three thousand. The main concentration areas include Eastleigh, Majengo, Pumwani, Pangani (Chai road) and Shauri Moyo. Due to their increased numbers, they seem to have diversified their economic activities to include prostitution, bar tenders, massage parlour services and other red light activities. Reports are rife of cases of murder and death during their employment in Eastleigh but all this goes unreported to authorities… is alleged that their employers (mainly Somali) go to a great length to ensure cover up of such cases.

Some of the girls are touted to have transited to the Middle East, while others are reported to have travelled south, to the Kenyan Coast where they work in brothels and other low paying service sectors. One of the rare emerging unconfirmed reports has been received of some of the girls transiting towards Somalia – with a potential destination being Al-Shabaab brides. The main route has been mapped to be through Mombasa, Malindi and then to Lamu before they cross over the border at Kiunga into Somalia (this needs further investigation).

Renewed effort: “A drop in the Ocean”

The Anti Human Trafficking and Child Protection Unit (AHTCPU) of the Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI) in late 2019 rescued 12 Karamoja girls from Eastleigh. They were later committed to be returned by a court order and eventually repatriated to Uganda. During the processing of documentation, “Make a Child Smile” (MCS), a Uganda based NGO offered to work alongside the Kenya Government to ensure that the girls were properly absorbed into appropriate safe houses in Uganda. It was during this successful repatriation process that MCS developed further interest to seek and return more Karamoja girls from Nairobi to Uganda; but owing to the fact that MCS was non-governmental, working with the DCI proved a little difficult, hence, Counter Human Trafficking Trust-East Africa (CHTEA) was brought on board by DCI to work with MCS.

One of the immediate support given to MCS by CHTEA was the development and adoption of a “Karamoja Intervention Framework”. The framework was a kind of a matrix providing the Karamoja region context, analysis for push and pull factors and appropriate steps/recommendations for the different actors in Uganda towards a more sustainable reintegration. The framework further articulated on a step by step the specific actions needed to provide a sustainable rescue, return, rehabilitation and reintegration of the Karimojong victims of human trafficking from Nairobi and beyond.

The framework has since been shared with the Uganda Parliament and was also used as a reference point by a Karamoja Parliamentary Task Force which was commissioned to validate the existence of child trafficking in the Karamoja region. The Task Force’s report is yet to be presented to the Parliament – until February 2020. Following the Karamoja framework’s adoption, MCS, working closely with CHTEA embarked on a detailed plan to rescue more girls from Nairobi. As a first effort, CHTEA began to carry out discrete surveillance of the girls’ movement and locations in Nairobi; as well as document the profiles of their ages……video footage is available to this effect.

On the Ugandan side, MCS initiated a process of developing a joint rescue plan with both the Uganda’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and the Interpol Country Bureau, Uganda. As a first mark of action, a regional conference convened by the East African Child Rights Network (EACRN) in Kampala, Uganda brought together stakeholders from the CID, Interpol, Immigration, DCI from Kenya, IGAD and the Civil Society from both Kenya and Uganda. The Executive Director of CHTEA was the key facilitator, while MCS and other NGO’s took leading roles in discussing the Karamoja region’s human trafficking dynamic. While everyone appreciated that there existed a serious human rights issue in the name of human trafficking, no one could work alone to provide the much needed solution. The conference went further to acknowledge that some of the trafficked Karamoja girls ended up in the hands of the Al Shabaab. This position was confirmed by both Uganda police and the Interpol, Uganda Bureau. It was therefore evident that the Karamoja human trafficking reality was getting more complex and entrenched within the Somalia factor.

In the run up to the rescue operation, MCS facilitated the travel, accommodation, upkeep and surveillance support for a team of CID Officers from Uganda who were joined by another team of detectives from the Kenya’s DCI (TOCU and AHTCPU). CHTEA provided a detailed set of information prior to the surveillance and this proved quite helpful in mapping out the rescue plan. Although there were a number of fertile locations for rescue, the team zeroed down to one particular open field called “Kamukunji” grounds; situated along Nairobi River next to Shauri Moyo estate and the Majengo slums. Kamukunji grounds had been identified as an important weekly convergence point for the Karamoja girls. The girls normally converged at these grounds every  Sunday from all corners of Nairobi….they used the grounds for bonding, recreation, receiving and sending the latest news from and to home, respectively, meeting new arrivals and inducting them, coordinating support and employment for new arrivals, making new friends and also performing traditional arts such as music and oral story telling. This field had become such a popular venue that, young Kenyan men could be seen scouting for partners…….mainly for sexual exploitation.

According to one CHTEA volunteer from the Shauri Moyo neighborhood, “girls go for a low as 200 Shillings for a sexual escapade. They normally do so to supplement their meagre income from their other regular employment in order to support their families back in Karamoja”. This was confirmed to be true during the surveillance operation. When approached, by one of the officers, they requested that he buys one of them a plate of chips (fried potatoes) as she desperately missed it in her diet at her Somali employer…..the Somali community mainly feeds on spaghetti and rice. During surveillance, it was also confirmed that most of the trafficked girls originated from the Napak District in Karamoja region. It was not quite easy to however scientifically understand why Napak since the socio-economic and geo-political context was shared amongst all the rest of the districts within Karamoja region.

Developing the Rescue Strategy

The Ugandan team landed in Nairobi without a proper notice of the Kenyan counter parts, hence, emergency meetings had to be convened to process a strategy. The initial “Karamoja Intervention Framework” developed by CHTEA for the Uganda team was side stepped to pave way for a hurriedly proposed intervention, which was seemingly being pushed from the back ground by the Director of MCS. That notwithstanding, a quick action by the Kenya’s DCI saved the day. A generic model of a rescue operation was agreed on and both sides agreed to work together to rescue as many Karamoja girls as it would be possible.

Developing the rescue strategy involved a multiplicity of approaches…….meetings between Ugandan security officers and their Kenyan counterparts, meetings between Kenyan security officers (DCI) and CHTEA, meetings between Ugandan team and CHTEA at their hotel, and joint meetings for everyone. The different meetings dwelt on various aspects of the rescue operation….taking into consideration risk factors, reviewing design of the rescue operation, evaluating details such as potential victim numbers, appropriateness of the shelter, psycho-social support needs, dealing with potential pregnant girls and girls with babies, handling the sick and physically challenged (if any), transport needs (both local and transboundary), how to apply professional rescue methods for victims, coordination needs from different end points of the operation and the overall roles and responsibilities by all actors in the operation. It took long man-hours to develop these to a single strategy.


According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, surveillance is the act of close watch kept over someone or something (as by a detective). In this context, surveillance involved undercover infiltration of the Karamoja girls within their ordinary areas of presence such as Eastleigh, Shauri Moyo, Majengo, Pumwani and areas of Chai road. CHTEA activated all her community based volunteers (under the coordination of “Article 30”). Article 30 is a community based network of well-trained CHTEA volunteers in the area of counter human trafficking. The network spreads across Mathare slums, Eastleigh, Kariobangi, Ruaraka and Kyamaiko. The CHTEA team was able to identify the particular location within Eastleigh where coordination of trafficking the girls used to happen. One key Ugandan trafficker was identified and marked for arrest. During one major surveillance at the location, the CHTEA team led a team of DCI officers to the hide out den, in deep Eastleigh. The DCI officers camouflaged as potential employers (all were ladies) and a deal was struck for the girls to be picked by a bus to be taken to the working potential location on the designated day of the rescue operation. CHTEA made a financial pay out to the girls for their lunch (upon their request) and that action alone did the final nail to the plan.

On the part of the Ugandan team, they almost had daily meetings with CHTEA to review the rescue operation design plan. Some of those meetings ran deep into the night at their hotel in Nairobi. The Ugandan CID team members kept reviewing their ideas in relation to their strategic roles before and during the main rescue operation while MCS continued to offer support alongside CHTEA. MCS further facilitated movement and welfare of the various security officers on the ground by way of vehicles, fuel and meals. MCS also organised for special transport for the girls who would be collected alongside the trafficker at Eastleigh.

New Dynamics

After the first week of surveillance, the Ugandan team decided to involve the Ugandan Embassy, upon realizing that the potential rescued numbers could go beyond their own speculation. In this effort, the Uganda embassy offered to host the victims at the embassy grounds at their Kileleshwa Chancery grounds. MCS facilitated the acquisition of temporary shelters (tents), food, emergency kits, beddings and mattresses; while the embassy offered to support with sanitary facilities and ambience of the grounds.

The other potential dynamic that the team had to deal with was the reality of the weather……..a sunny day would be ideal; but a wet day would greatly hamper the grouping of the girls at the Kamukunji grounds. Never the less, all plans were made in assumption that the weather would be ideal for the rescue operation.

Again, Kamukunji grounds is sandwiched between Shauri Moyo, Majengo, Pumwani and the greater Eastleigh neighborhoods. These are fairly dangerous areas where the potentiality of counter attack by organised groups could not be ruled out…….this aspect was brought up by one of the leading officers within the DCI. In effect, both uniformed and non-uniformed Kenyan police officers were deployed to support the rescue operation. A good chunk of all Kenyan security officers were armed as a precaution in case of any resistance.

The Rescue Operation

After two weeks of intense surveillance, a unitary rescue plan (both security and civil) was agreed on and clear roles and responsibilities clarified. Since the Ugandan team was lean, they cooperated with the leadership of the Kenyan team. The rescue operation was divided into two segments:

  • Rescue an Eastleigh based group which had been baited by jobs’ promise. The rescue operation here had the potential of nabbing one trafficker
  • Mopping up a majority of the girls at the Shauri Moyo, Kamukunji grounds at around 6.00pm (same day) as they socialized.

The Eastleigh Rescue Operation

A special bus to ferry the Eastleigh group to a-would be working factory was arranged and at exactly 4pm, the bus arrived at the picking point. Inside the bus was the team leader of the Ugandan Security team (she camouflaged herself as a representative of the employer). She did not engage in any discussions with the 12 girls (including the trafficker) who boarded the bus. The number of girls reduced considerably since some had already left after changing their initial plan. They had arrived at 2.00pm as opposed to an earlier agreement to meet at 4pm. So they got tired of waiting and left.

The Ugandan security officer sat next to the bus door to keep an eye on any unexpected turn of events. Trailing the bus very closely was a Kenyan security van with five (5) plain clothes’ armed DCI officers. This team was under the command of a senior DCI officer. The security team offered protection to the bus and its occupants. Trailing from a distance under cover was also a media crew who were commissioned by CHTEA to cover the day’s proceedings. Once the girls were picked, the bus headed to the Ugandan Chancery, at Kileleshwa. A senior CHTEA officer sat at the front of the bus as a guide. Not even the bus driver understood the mission, even though at one point he got curious when he overheard the mention of police protection as he eave’s dropped on a conversation during a call to the CHTEA official who sat next to him. The journey to the Chancery which should be about 10 km, felt like eternity for the anxious security team from Uganda. It all however, went well and the bus was finally ushered into the compound of the Chancery without any major incident. During the journey, the Ugandan security officer could hear some of the girls raise curiosity but the trafficker, who was their undisputed leader assured them that all would be fine.

Once the bus entered the gate of the Chancery, the Ugandan security officer swung into action and retrieved all mobile phones and personal belongings from all the girls. She was joined by the Kenyan DCI team that had offered protection though out the journey and together, they screened all girls, one by one. Incidentally, three (3) CHTEA community volunteers from a Community Based Organisation called Article 30 had also been picked up with the girls. However, a phone call to the rescuing officers released the three.  The actual number of Karamoja girls rescued from Eastleigh was therefore eight (8) and one (1) trafficker.

The Shauri Moyo (Kamukunji Grounds) Rescue Operation

As early as 3.00pm, the Kamukunji grounds were beaming with life from the Karimojong girls who routinely visit the grounds for various social, cultural and bonding reasons. Unlike the previous Sunday, this particular Sunday was rife with big numbers. The numbers sored as the hours progressed. The Ugandan security officers, DCI officers and officials from both CHTEA and MCS infiltrated the girls as they entered the grounds and as they herded in groups. The under-cover media too did their bit.

At the top of the hour, all Kenyan police officers who had been formed to be part of the rescue operation left their command center at one of the nearby schools and entered the Kamukunji grounds………some on foot, others in lorries and senior commanders on small police vans. The lorries were supposed to ferry the rescued girls to the Ugandan Chancery. Both plain clothes and uniformed officers dotted the grounds. The heavy presence of the police in their different attires while some were heavily armed created a total confusion and send panic across the grounds. The girls got into a frenzy and started running in all directions while screaming at the top of their voices.

The crowd at the grounds at the time of police rescue operation was estimated at over five hundred (500). Most of them were aged between 8 years and 15 years. Some appeared to be expectant mothers while others dotted young children on their backs.

When the police swung into action, they were able to rescue eighty seven (87) who were ferried in two lorries to the Ugandan Chancery compound at Kileleshwa. When combine with the Eastleigh group, the total Karamoja girls rescued totaled 95 (ninety five) and one Ugandan trafficker.

Shelter at the Chancery

As explained elsewhere above, the shelter arrangements at the Chancery proved inadequate, especially at the first night. Due to a heavy down pour, the first night destabilized the whole shelter arrangement. Most of the girls were exposed to rain water and the temporary tents proved to be inadequate and less protective towards the vagaries of wet weather. MCS, the main sponsor of the rescue operation resorted to revamping the tent facilities in order to better protect the rescued victims.

Repatriation and Border Crossing

In a record three days, the Ugandan Embassy was able to process all necessary travel documentation for the ninety five girls. The trafficker was charged with child trafficking at a Nairobi court. The Ugandan Embassy pledged to bring back a total of 4 (four) victims who would give their testimonies at the court during the case hearing.

A team from the DCI escorted the bus carrying the ninety five Karamoja girls up to the Busia border where they formally handed them over to the Ugandan counterparts for onward journey to Kampala, where they were further screened and place under appropriate care of the NGO shelters while others (the mature category) were left at the hands of Government. The matter is still evolving on both sides of the border and this report remains inconclusive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>