When Captain Frank Njoroge and his co-pilot Kennedy Shamalla crashed their plane in the Akobo area of the Greater Upper Nile region of South Sudan, what followed was fear their families pushed the Kenyan government to secure their kin.
But this also served to show how South Sudan is ruled by whoever can control an area.
Akobo, near the border with Ethiopia, also happened to be the hometown of Dong Samuel Luak, a South Sudan rebel activist kidnapped from the streets of Nairobi and disappeared on January 2017, before he was deported back to Juba alongside his colleague called Aggrey Idris.
As the Foreign Ministry lobbied for their release, rebels allied to Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition (SPLM-IO) detained the two pilots, demanding ransom for a person the crash allegedly killed.
The pilots eventually got out on February 20, a month after the crash, but after their insurer paid Sh11 million.
Were it a normal country, the South Sudanese government would have intervened and rescued the Kenyans.
On Thursday, SPLM-IO Spokesman in Kenya James Oryema denied rebels mistreat civilians even though he admitted certain areas have ‘traditions’ that demand compensation when a foreigner kills a person.
“In that accident, nothing unusual was done to the Kenyans. It was just that a local court decided that they have to compensate for the person they killed.
“It happens to everyone as it is the tradition: When you kill a person, you have to pay for it,” he told the Saturday Nation, saying the delayed release was not an arbitrary detention but was because of processing of payment by the insurance, UAP.
“We have never harassed any Kenyan. No Kenyan has ever been killed by us. They are being killed or mistreated in Juba. For us, we need their help all the time,” Mr Oryema said of the SPLM/IO.
The pilots’ case was not isolated. On May 2015, five Kenyans were arrested for attempting to defraud the South Sudanese Presidency of Sh1.5 billion in dollars and local currency.
What followed was a ping pong between Kenya and South Sudan that went on until December 2017.
President Salva Kiir had claimed the four, one was later released, Boniface Muriuki, Anthony Mwadime, Anthony Keya and Ravi Ramesh had been accomplices with local South Sudanese operatives to steal the money by wiring it through Kenya.
They were initially sentenced to life in prison, which elicited protests from Kenya and their families as there had been no evidence linking them to the money.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs lodged an appeal on the grounds that they were not accorded a fair trial.
President Uhuru Kenyatta would later intervene to have the four released, following negotiations President Kiir.
The details of the negotiation were not released.
But in a twist, President Kiir appointed one of the men initially linked to the scam as a senior official in the lucrative Petroleum and Mining Ministry.
The harassment of Kenyans in South Sudan however goes beyond reported cases.
In 2017, 28 aid workers were killed, three of them Kenyans who included a teacher who had just gotten a job at an NGO there six days earlier.
Details of their death obtained by the Saturday Nation indicate the Kenyans had been kidnapped by a roadside, tied and shot from the back.
They were identified only because the killers scattered their identification documents near the bodies.
But Kenyans there say harassment is not limited to the season of violence.
A Kenyan who has lived in South Sudan for years told the Saturday Nation the problem of harassment of Kenyans results from a weak response from government, which either sits on complaints or takes long to respond.
“The government needs to come up with a special programme to support the Kenyan businesses and professionals affected in South Sudan,” the official who asked not to be named because he is conducting some assignment for the South Sudan government said.
Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs say they are changing policy to ensure adequate protection of Kenyans abroad.
“We host tens of thousands of refugees here. We feed and clothe them, yet they treat us inhumanly in their country. This is unacceptable and I won’t stand for it, at least when I am the PS,” Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau told the parliamentary Committee in February during vetting.
“If you do something bad to a Kenyan again, there will be consequences.”
Mr Edwin Limo, Public Affairs officer, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade told the Saturday Nation the perceived harassment and dissatisfaction with the treatment Kenyans receive in South Sudan is a reality the ministry is constantly grappling with through the embassy in Juba.
He said the government has employed a wide range of strategies to protect the lives and property of Kenyans in South Sudan.
“These include intense and persistent Diplomatic engagement with the Transitional Government of National Unity, Stakeholders and partners with a view to clear the path for Kenyans to operate in South Sudan.”