Two Indian tourists and their local driver disappeared in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on a July night. More than two months after the incident, nine policemen have been arrested in connection with the case, which India says it is “closely watching”. The BBC pieces together the mystery and highlights the many unanswered questions
In one of his last social media posts before he disappeared, Zulfiqar Ahmad Khan shared a video of a roaring lion in Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve where he had been holidaying.
“Magical mornings in Maasai Mara. Just imagine when the first encounter you have is with Simba. Breakfast anyone?” he wrote in a typically cheerful post.
The 48-year-old Indian media marketing professional had last worked as the chief operating officer of Balaji Telefilms, a Mumbai-based TV company.
Mr Khan’s LinkedIn profile described him as a “results-driven, people-focussed business leader” with more than 19 years of experience in broadcast and digital media companies; and a “high energy, performance-driven coach, mentor and manager”.
His friends described him as a “keen sportsman, a foodie, an avid traveller and explorer” and a cricket lover.
After quitting his job in June, Mr Khan had travelled in Kenya for a month. His Facebook and Instagram feeds were filled with pictures and videos of his time in the country: breakfasts in Nairobi, afternoons in game parks.
Four days before he disappeared, he called up friends and sounded excited about exploring Kenya.
One of them was Rajiv Dubey, a Delhi-based marketing professional, who had known him for 24 years. “He sounded very happy. He had spoken to some of his friends just days earlier and talked about wildlife at length and advised them to visit this ‘lovely’ place,” Mr Dubey said.
Mr Khan told friends he would return home on 24 July and that he also wanted to come back to Kenya to witness the annual “Great Migration” – when more than a million wildebeest and herd animals migrate to the rolling grasslands of Maasai Mara.
On the night of 22 July, Mr Khan vanished, along with another Indian man and a Kenyan driver.
The second Indian was Mohammad Zaid Sami Kidwai, 36, who had also come to Nairobi on a tourist visa. Information about Mr Kidwai, who hailed from the northern Indian city of Lucknow and lived in Dubai, remains sketchy.
Media reports in Kenya described him as an “information and communication technology expert” who led a “private life”.
In a letter to the Indian High Commission in Nairobi in July, his wife Ambreen Kidwai said her husband had been visiting Kenya since February for tourism.
She described Mr Khan as her husband’s friend, and said both of them had stepped out of the Nairobi hotel they were staying in and headed to a bar at 22:45 on 22 July.
Mrs Kidwai said she had “texted” her husband close to midnight asking when he would return. He texted back saying he would leave the bar in “15 minutes”.
She nodded off soon after and when she woke up at 03:00, she found that her husband had not returned, Mrs Kidwai said.
She called her husband’s – and the driver’s – phone, but both seemed to be switched off. She checked with “mutual friends” in Nairobi, but the two men were not with any of them.
Next day, Mrs Kidwai went to the police and reported her missing husband and Mr Khan. She also went to the bar and sought the CCTV footage – it showed the two Indians leaving the place close to one in the morning and getting into a Toyota sedan. She also identified an abandoned car that the police had found as the one in which her husband and Mr Khan were travelling.
Back in Mumbai, Mr Khan’s friends were worrying about him.
They said there was “complete silence” after 21 July – no social media updates, no phone calls – and “what worried the friends the most – our WhatsApp [messages] weren’t showing as received”.
With the police in Kenya appearing to be making no headway and after waiting for 70 days, friends launched a petition seeking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s help in finding Mr Khan – it has been signed by more than 10,000 people so far.
“Zulfi just doesn’t visit a country or a place – but spends weeks exploring the area, soaking himself into its history and culture,” his friends wrote in the petition.
His trip to Kenya, they said, was “the explorer in Zulfi wanting to experience a new country… and then Zulfi just disappeared. Without a trace. No contact with family and friends”.
What happened to the men
Quoting officials, the local media reported that the two Indians were in Kenya to help the election campaign of William Ruto, a charismatic 55-year-old politician who was sworn in as the country’s fifth president in September, following a narrow win.
The Indians went missing together with their local driver Nicodemus Mwania soon after being picked up by police in Nairobi, reports said.
Nearly three months later, Kenyan police claimed to have made headway: nine policemen have been arrested since 21 October in connection with what they believe is an incident of kidnapping and murder of the three men.
The policemen were part of an elite squad called Special Services Unit that was disbanded by President Ruto last week for allegedly carrying out extrajudicial killings and disappearances of suspects over several years, according to Kenya’s Internal Affairs Unit, which investigates complaints against policemen.
Human rights groups say their independent investigations have linked the squad and other police units to the death of more than 600 people over the past four years. Some of the bodies were later recovered in rivers in western and northern Kenya.
The suspects in the case of the missing Indians include a chief inspector of police, a corporal and police drivers. “They have not been charged yet for us to officially deny the allegations,” Danstan Omari, the suspects’ lawyer, said.
“But my clients feel this is a political witch-hunt and malicious. They are being targeted because of politics,” Mr Omari said.
According to an affidavit filed by the police in the court on Monday, the taxi carrying the Indians was forcibly stopped by a group of men travelling in a Subaru vehicle on a Nairobi road. The Indians and their driver were then abducted and driven in another vehicle to the Aberdare forest, some 150km (93 miles) from the city, where they were allegedly killed and “their bodies were dumped”.
The affidavit talks about at least four suspects, including one man who had planned a similar abduction of three other people in Nairobi.
A search in the forest last week yielded nothing apart from a few “clothes and other items”, which would be sent for DNA examinations, the police told the court. A local newspaper reported that “bones and belts” were also found at the spot, but this could not be verified independently.
The police said the kidnapping of the Indians and their driver was a “multi-agency operation between the Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and other security agencies”.
The two Indians were in Kenya for “business and commercial purposes,” according to the police.
A twist in the tale
But the family and friends of Mr Khan strongly deny that he was in Kenya for business. Mrs Kidwai also said in her letter that her husband was there as a tourist.
“Zulfi never told me or his friends about any job he was doing for the election campaign there. He would always call me up if he was doing something new,” Mr Dubey said.
But Dennis Itumbi, a consultant who ran the digital campaign for President Ruto, said the two Indians had “indeed assisted” in the social media campaign.
“I met both of them a number of times in Nairobi. I knew where they used to stay. I was on a Telegram group with them. They were not employed by the campaign, but they gave us some ideas, some of which we used,” Mr Itumbi told me on the phone from Nairobi.
Ahmednassir Abdullah, the lawyer for the Indian families, told me: “They were helping one of the presidential candidates in some small [social] media. I think they were experts on how to make short videos of political rallies. I think both of them did something small, very peripheral [to the campaign].”
The unanswered questions
The police say they need to carry out “further investigations and gather more confirmatory evidence” to link the suspects to the disappearance of the three men.
Clearly there are many unanswered questions.
Did the two Indians know each other from before? Did they work for the Kenyan presidential election campaign and get caught up in political feuds? Why were they allegedly kidnapped? Whose remains have the police found?
Nobody quite knows.
By Soutik Biswas
Soutik is a correspondent in India. He has covered elections in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, the tsunami in India and Sri Lanka in 2005, and militancy in Kashmir. Before joining the BBC, he worked in Indian newspapers and magazines. Soutik was also a Reuters Fellow at the University of Oxford. He loves movies, blues and jazz, and believes Derek Trucks is the best and most innovative slide guitarist alive.