NAIROBI — On a recent night, Kenyan security forces rounded up 43 people, including women and children, in the Somali enclave of Nairobi known as Eastleigh. The ethnic Somalis spent five days in an overcrowded cell without access to a lawyer or being formally charged.
“They accused us of being al-Shabab sympathizers,” recalled Mohamed Noor, a Somali journalist, referring to the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militia. “They said they would chase us out of the country.”
Since entering neighboring Somalia last month to fight al-Shabab, Kenyan security forces have launched a parallel campaign on their own soil to diffuse the militia’s networks here. As a result of that crackdown, ethnic Somalis have been mistreated and in some cases beaten, arbitrarily arrested and deported, according to human rights groups, Somali community leaders and witnesses.
“The Kenyan authorities should not use the current military operation as an excuse to clamp down on the rights of people within [Kenya’s] borders,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director of Human Rights Watch, the watchdog group.
Today, many ethnic Somalis, mostly refugees who have fled Somalia’s civil conflicts, are living in a state of apprehension. Hate speech and xenophobia are on the rise, Somalis said in interviews. They are afraid to leave their homes at night, and some have even sent their children back to Somalia to prevent them from being picked up in Kenyan security sweeps.
The concerns come as anti-
Somali feelings have been growing over the past year in this East African nation. Many Kenyans say Somalis, who make up roughly 8 percent of the country’s population of 40 million, have taken over the economy, driven up real estate prices and made Kenya less secure.
Now, the military operation has made the atmosphere even more tense, Somali community leaders say. Last month, Kenya’s assistant internal security minister, Orwa Ojode, informed the parliament that the offensive would be coupled with the
“mother of all operations” in Nairobi to flush out al-Shabab members and keep the capital safe. He singled out Eastleigh.
“This is like a big animal with the tail in Somalia, and the head of the animal is here in Eastleigh,” he told lawmakers.
Some Somalis have welcomed the Kenyan raids on their enclaves. Al-Shabab loyalists, they say, have given their community a bad reputation. “People are fed up with the fanatics, those who harbor the terrorists,” said Mohammed Hussein Abukar, a spokesman for Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, a Sufi Muslim force fighting al-
The United Nations said in a July report that there were “extensive Kenyan networks linked to al-Shabaab, which not only recruit and raise funds for the organization, but also conduct orientation and training events inside Kenya.” In particular, U.N. investigators alleged that a Kenyan youth center, headquartered in a slum next to Eastleigh, was a front for the militia.
Somali community leaders acknowledged that there are al- Shabab loyalists in Eastleigh and other Somali enclaves. They quickly added, however, that most Somalis detest al-Shabab but nevertheless face discrimination because of their ethnicity.
“The xenophobia is dividing two populations who have lived together peacefully for a long time,” said Ali Isak, 28, a leader of Somali Youth for Peace and Change, an activist group in Eastleigh.
Rashid Abdi, a Somalia expert with the International Crisis Group, said that while some Somalis have been mistreated and targeted by security forces, the Kenyans have mostly restrained themselves. Still, suspicions of Somalis have deepened, and a harsher crackdown could come in the weeks and months ahead, he said.
“The Somali community fears an al-Shabab retaliatory strike more than Kenya’s military operation,” Abdi said. “They fear that could provoke similar sort of attacks on their community by the Kenyan government.”
A strike inside Kenya is a real possibility. In July 2010, the militia orchestrated bombings in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, killing dozens watching the soccer World Cup. The group said the attacks were retaliation for Uganda’s backing of an African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Militia leaders have vowed to attack Kenya in a similar fashion unless it pulls its troops out of Somalia.
Security now is tight around the capital. Guards are posted at malls, restaurants and bars, searching cars and frisking customers for bombs. Plainclothes intelligence agents patrol downtown, seeking out anyone who looks suspicious. That often means anyone who appears to be ethnic Somali, Somalis said in interviews.
Last week, two agents stopped Ismail Hassan, 28, in downtown Nairobi. Like most Somalis, he is a refugee who sought sanctuary in Kenya from the violence and warlords in his homeland. The agents grilled him, demanding what he was doing, where he was going. They checked his identification papers, and finally released him.
It was the second time that Hassan had been detained since Kenya’s military operation. The previous time, soldiers accused him of being a member of al-Shabab and gave him an ultimatum — pay an $8 bribe or go to jail. Hassan paid.
Sometimes, there are also other forms of humiliation. Two weeks ago, Hassan stepped into a minivan taxi. When the other passengers saw him, they demanded that he get out, Hassan recalled. One passenger asked the driver: “Why are you forcing us to travel with this al-Shabab guy?”
When the driver refused to kick Hassan out, all the other passengers stepped out of the taxi, he said.
Somalis have also been harassed in other areas of Kenya. According to a statement by Human Rights Watch, “Kenyan military personnel arbitrarily detained and mistreated civilians” on Nov. 11 in the town of Garissa.
A witness said “soldiers picked up people who looked Somali, beat them and forced them to sit in dirty water while interrogating them.”
In Eastleigh, scrutiny of Somalis is growing. Police have increased identification checks of Somalis. If they don’t have proper refugee documents, Somali community leaders said, they face deportation — unless they can afford a bribe. The Yahye Human Rights Foundation, a Somali activist group, said it has helped 85 Somali refugees get out of jail this month.
Most Somalis expect the crackdowns to intensify the longer Kenya wages war inside Somalia, and especially if many Kenyan soldiers die. That could drive angry and disaffected Somalis to support the militia, some say.
Noor, the journalist, said that while he was in jail he overheard some young Somalis who had been caught along with him in the sweep.
“They said, ‘We are civilians. We are innocent. If we are prosecuted in an illegal way, the only way we can get revenge is to join al-Shabab,’ ” Noor recalled.