As we mark this year’s Mashujaa (Heroes) Day, we celebrate a Matatu Hero: Mr. Paul Karuri. Had it not been for Mr. Paul Karuri’s bravery, the number of deaths during the post-election violence in 2008 could have been higher.Although his name may not ring a bell to many, passengers in a Star Liner bus headed for Mombasa from Kisii in early 2008 remember him well.He saved their lives from bloodthirsty groups of youths armed with machetes, stones and slings. Mr Paul Karuri drove his passengers through 50 barriers on flat tyres and shattered windscreens to safety from Kericho to Kisii town.
The then 56-year-old Mr Karuri’s brush with death mirrored the nightmare that thousands of Kenyans encountered on most roads in parts of the country that were ravaged by the violence.
At the height of the mayhem, which broke out on December 27, 2007, thousands of people were marooned upcountry or in towns, either fearing attacks from armed youths who had literally taken over most routes, or due to lack of transport to major towns including Nakuru and Nairobi after most bus companies parked their vehicles.
The most affected routes were those through Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western provinces, where bands of youths had erected “roadblocks” using huge boulders.
Vehicles were stopped and passengers interrogated to determine their ethnic communities. Those from the “wrong” communities were robbed and hacked to death.
During an interview after his ordeal, Mr Karuri said it was not his courage but divine intervention that saw him drive through the roadblocks to save his life and those of his passengers on the fateful night.
His Star Liner bus, which was full, left Kisumu in the evening.
Trouble started in Kericho when residents there warned him that the security situation ahead was bad and that armed men had barricaded the road at Londiani along the Kericho-Nairobi highway.
Mr Karuri heeded the warning and opted to use an alternative road — driving back to Bomet on the Kericho-Kisii highway but, on reaching Litein trading centre on the Kisii-Kericho highway, he was again stopped and warned that Kaplong, a few kilometres ahead, was also a no-go zone, forcing him to divert once more.
Just a few kilometres from Litein, he came face-to-face with armed warriors who had blocked the road using huge rocks. They flagged him down, and he obliged — he had no choice anyway.
He was ordered to open the door and the passengers told to alight with their identity cards raised.
“I realised that many of us were facing certain death,” recounted the driver in an interview with the Nation after the hair-raising experience.
As the gang leader barked orders at Mr Karuri, his troops placing old tyres under the bus ready to torch it, he made a split-second decision — he engaged gears and took off at high speed, sending his attackers scampering for safety.
He drove all the way to Kisii with the passengers screaming while others prayed fervently.
The police in Kisii escorted the bus to a nearby chief’s camp where the passengers spent a few hours — under guard — before they were transferred to Bomet Police Station to spend the rest of the night.