By Samira Sawlani
“The Country chose its prey. Seduced them, made them believe they owned it and then gobbled them down, often in the most tender of ways—like a python.”
“Kenya is treacherous.”
The above are excerpts from Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s novel “Dust”. Though they form part of a fictional story, for many in Kenya, these sentiments currently reflect reality.
Over the last two months the Kenyan Government has launched an exercise aimed at tackling the dark cloud of terrorism hovering above the country, an exercise which has inadvertently highlighted the many ills in society today, for in fighting one threat, others have been fuelled, particularly corruption and xenophobia.
As part of Operation Usalama Watch, raids targeted at identifying those illegally in Kenya have been sanctioned. The government has denied that any specific nationalities or ethnic groups are being targeted, yes there have been reports of individuals from Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda being arrested and screened, however, there is overwhelming evidence that the Somalis in Kenya have borne the brunt of this crackdown.
Many have defended the actions of the state as being in the interest of the people and not singling out any one community. Well, denial is often nirvana.
As a 35 year old woman from Eastleigh said to me, “The attitude of the Kenyan Government towards us is that of a landlord trying to get rid of his tenants. He cannot tell them to leave so he goes out of his way to make the house as unlivable as possible so that they will leave.”
Be it Somali refugees, Somali migrants or those who hail from North Eastern Province, I found one striking similarity in the views of those I spoke to: they all felt like they live on the cusp of a forced exodus from the Kenyan identity they possess.
Due to the long silences of the mainstream media (bar a few articles on this matter) it is very easy to be oblivious to exactly what reality is like for Somalis in Kenya, particularly Nairobi, at this moment.
As should be public knowledge, thousands of people are currently being screened at Kasarani Stadium in order for the authorities to determine their status.
Officials say that those held at what has been branded “Kasarani Concentration Camp” are being treated well and their human rights are being respected. Why then have no media organizations, aid agencies or local NGOs been allowed in to inspect conditions?
Some of those that shared their experiences of being held in Kasarani said the following: “It was cramped and dirty. The worst was what to do with our children who were frustrated, when we would ask the police how long we were to be kept for they would not answer.” Meanwhile, Fartun, a mother of two, stated, “Due to how cold it would get in there my daughter fell ill. I expected the police to help but they did not pay attention. Only after I paid a bribe did they go and get me some medicine. Most people that came in had been held in other police stations where they had been mistreated, and some ladies shared that they had been touched inappropriately by some male police.”
Shop owner Omar shared his story, “The police entered my home at around 2 am, and the noise woke up our 4 children, all of whom were very scared. We were then taken to Kasarani and split apart. My wife is pregnant and suffering from morning sickness – there were no decent facilities for her to even be sick in.” Upon release the family returned to Eastleigh. “As my phone was taken from me when I arrived at Kasarani, I had no way to let my staff know what was going on, so my electronics shop has suffered much loss. Because of all this trouble many of my neighbours have vacated their premises and gone. The Somalis who would come to the shop now do not because they know the police are always patrolling the streets looking for bribes. Unfortunately they have visited my home twice since we left Kasarani and demanded money even though we have IDs. This constant paying of bribes and slow business has put much financial strain on us, but the police know Somalis are economically successful and are vulnerable with no one to speak for them.”
Cramped cells, no access to food or lawyers and being asked for bribes are common experiences among those Somalis who have been arrested and held at Kasarani or police stations across Nairobi. Shrouded in mystery are the stories of those that have not been deported, but been sent to refugee camps in other parts of the country, often separate from their families.
Life, however, is not much better for those from the Somali community that are apparently “free” and not in police custody. One young man said, “My ancestors hail from Wajir, I have lived in Nairobi my whole life, I am Kenyan and all of a sudden people are getting off matatus when I board or telling me to go back to where I came from? I have no connections with Somalia, where exactly do they expect me to go? Kenyans are not like this, and it may be a one off, but it is very telling.”
I interviewed a gentleman living in Eastleigh who told me that the police try to target elderly Somalis because they are vulnerable and often do not speak much Kiswahili, so they are more likely to pay bribes out of fear, and to avoid being hassled. He mentioned that the police have visited his neighbour, who is an elderly man with a young family. Despite his having identification and a passport, they threaten to take him to the station knowing full well that because of his age the family will pay to stop this from happening. For this reason, they keep visiting his home, posing the same threat and increasing the amount of money they want every time.
In another case, a 60 year old diabetic man was arrested despite having a copy of his British passport, the original of which was away for renewal. He was taken to the Police Station at 6pm and his phone and documents confiscated while his family had no idea of his whereabouts. The following morning his family traced his location and the Police demanded KES 30,000 to release him, stating that otherwise, they would keep him in for another five days. Knowing his age and health condition would garner success, they received KES 26,000.
Other stories include trying to scare individuals into paying bribes by threatening to take them to the station with no intention to do so, threatening young women with rape, and destroying or confiscating Identification Cards or papers. The most bizarre story yet is of a man showing a police officer his Kenyan passport and the officer saying, “But where is your Kenyan visa?”
Destruction of property, breaking gates of homes and asking for bribes and using threatening language in front of children are all common. Police now frequent the same areas of Eastleigh every night, extracting more and more money from innocent people who just want to be left in peace. Many officers allegedly go to the area after their shift is finished (ironically, they are also making a huge profit out of those who do not have IDs or papers to be in Kenya, so if there are any potential terrorists around, they too are able to pay their way out of arrest). In an attempt to fight one problem another has been fuelled: corruption.
Somalis in Kenya not only live in fear of terrorists like the rest of the country, they also live in fear of those very agencies meant to protect them. Through “legal looting”, men and women who work hard to feed their families, run businesses which aid the Kenyan economy and largely mind their own business are being exploited. As if this is not enough, they then experience humiliation in police stations, in their homes and on the streets only to find that when they speak out, no one is listening. How many media houses have continuously reported on this? How many public figures came forward to clarify to people what their rights are?
As a 20 year old Somali-Kenyan student said, “The media are of no help, in fact sometimes their reporting on Somalis and Muslims in general has stereotyped us and led to us being held out as scapegoats. The media are supposed to speak against injustice but they have been mainly silent or quietly taken part.”
Terrorism is a very real threat to Kenya and urgency is required in tackling it, however these tactics are simply encouraging alienation which in itself is the cause of much dissatisfaction. A culture of police impunity is not the solution to terrorism, nor is targeting and marginalizing a particular community or racial profiling. Screening for those in the country illegally is important, however, locking individuals and families up without legal basis or using them as ATM machines does not read as a legitimate strategy, and it reinforces the view that the police are above the law they are meant to exercise and protect.
At a time when social cohesion and a feeling of “being Kenyan” and being valued should be encouraged the exact opposite is taking place.
As Nairobi born and bred 26 year old Abdi Sheikh said, “I will never be Kenyan, always Somali Kenyan and that translates to not Kenyan enough. We keep one foot out the door, not because we want to, but because we don’t know when the foot inside Kenya will be chopped off, forcing us to run.”