KIANGWE, KENYA - Kenya launched an operation to flush out al-Shabab terrorists from the northeast Boni Forest on the border with Somalia in 2015. The operation was meant to last a few months but — nearly five years later — security forces are still struggling to stamp out the Islamist militants. Villagers are afraid to venture into the forest and a deadly January attack on a joint Kenya-U.S. military base has highlighted ongoing insecurity.
Twenty-year-old Bilai Abdi said she was excited about getting her two children new clothes one afternoon in 2017.
She and six other civilians got into a police vehicle to get to the next town.
They never reached their destination, as the car hit a roadside bomb and was then attacked with gunfire, killing all the civilians except Abdi.
The mother of four dragged herself out of the bullet-ridden car.
"My leg was bleeding and one man aimed at me," she says. She also says she tried to duck but the bullet hit her in the neck. "The man came down and passed by me, thinking I was dead, without even looking at me."
A few hours later police helicopter was hovering above her head.
Abdi says she saw security moving around me but couldn’t see clearly. She says an officer recognized her but another pointed his gun at her and called her al-Shabab. Abdi says she replied that she was not al-Shabab. What al-Shabab person has a child, she asked. Abdi says they walked away and soon she was put in the helicopter.
Abdi survived but it took until January of this year for surgeries to remove the bullets lodged in her neck and left leg.
Kenyan authorities have since banned civilians from traveling with security, says Lamu County Commissioner Irungu Macharia.
"The terror group mainly targets our security vehicles and security officers. So, by having civilians on those vehicles they also become a target,” said Macharia.
Kenya launched an operation to flush out al-Shabab terrorists from the Boni Forest, on the border with Somalia, in 2015.
It was to last only a few months but, nearly five years later, villagers still avoid going too far into the forest for fear of attack, according to local resident Abala Waro.
"If you are seen in the forest, you can be killed. You don’t know these people. They are animals who live in the forest. You are nothing to them. It's better I die here of my hunger than go deep into the forest,” said Waro.
Somalia-based al-Shabab has been attacking and fighting Kenyan troops since 2011, when the government sent soldiers into Somalia to combat the militant group.
Underscoring the insecurity along the border, the militants launched a brazen assault on a joint Kenya-U.S. military base in Lamu County, Kenya in January. Three Americans were killed.