The driver of a bus in Mandera, Kenya, that was attacked by al-Shabab last week said he has no plans to stop traveling his usual route after it came to light that he and his passengers saved the lives of non-Muslims on the bus. Shukri Farah Abikar says driving is the only job he knows.
“I will continue, God willing,” he told VOA Somali.
“Things happen for a reason. If I’m destined to die on this road, it will happen that way, otherwise Allah will protect me.”
Abikar and the Muslim passengers on his bus did what was described as a heroic act that prevented a potential massacre.
On the morning of December 21, Abikar’s bus, traveling between El Wak and Mandera, was attacked. Abikar said he heard gunshots as he slowed down because of holes and cracks in the road. As he descended a hill, three men came out of the bush.
“They started shooting. Three gunshots hit two of the passengers. Shrapnel from the third bullet hit me just above the ankle,” he said. One passenger was killed.
It was just over a year ago when al-Shabab militants attacked a similar bus in the same area, where they separated Christians from Muslims, killing 28 passengers. Last April when al-Shabab attacked Garissa University, killing 148 people - most of them students - there were reports of a similar narrative.
Echoing these fears, Abikar and his Muslim passengers took immediate action by reaching out to the non-Muslims on the bus, especially women, who don’t wear head scarves.
Seeking out ‘infidels’
The gunmen surrounded the bus, telling them to get out and to get “infidels” out.
“Allah saved them. We saved them. I told them to mix with others,” Abikar said. “I asked the Muslim women to give them [non-Muslim women] clothes, Muslim scarves.”
The passengers were lined up near the bus and the militants started lecturing them, said Muslim passenger Abdirazak Aden Yarow, a student.
"We want to tell you that these people (the Kenyan government) kill you, rape your girls and kill your mothers. They don’t have mercy for you,” the al-Shabab commander told them, according to Yarow.
The gunmen tried to encourage the Muslims to identify the non-Muslims, indicating it was a religious duty to do so.
“You will be asked about Salat (daily prayers). You will be asked about the zakat (alms tax) and shahada (the testimony), and you will be asked about this,” Yarow quoted the gunmen as saying.
“First, one of us shouted that we were all Muslims, and then everyone did the same,” Yarow recalled.
“They (the gunmen) did not reply. They only said ‘go back to your bus,’” said Yarow.
The al-Shabab fighters then moved on to their next prey, another truck that was closely following the bus.
‘Why did you fire on us?’
Before reboarding the bus, Yarow said he had a brief encounter with one of the al-Shabab fighters he thought was about 18 years old and unmasked.
“I asked him, 'why did you fire on us?' He said, ‘we are very sorry. The shooting was done by someone very new to the job.’”
Driver Abikar has no doubt he and his passengers did the right thing.
“We are mixed with two different religions, and the fact they tried to separate us but failed is good for others to hear and good for us,” he said.
Abikar said he knew how the Muslims felt when al-Shabab separated non-Muslims in previous attacks and then killed teachers and doctors in Mandera. The killing forced hundreds of civil servants to stop working in the region. Many schools were closed as a result.
Nairobi Islamic scholar Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Shakul said it was a brave move by the Muslim bus passengers. "It’s important that people who live together in the same area, who share water and pasture, to have agreements and defend themselves in unity against attacks," he said.
“It changes the picture some may have that Muslims are in aggression. It's good people see the real position of the Muslims, it was a positive thing,” Shakul said. “This is going to bring bond and closeness.”
Abikar said the community is determined not to be separated because, “we live together and travel together on this road.”
He said he will not stop traveling.