The War on Terror in Kenya is fought against Somali citizens and refugees.
The rumbling of boots, the forceful knocking on the metallic door and the loud voices of uniformed men woke me up from my sleep; my peaceful night suddenly turned into a battle of explanation. In a matter of seconds, I looked out of the window and noticed that this was a General Service Unit (GSU) operation.
The thinking is that whoever detonates a grenade is a Somali terrorist
The GSU strikes fear into the hearts of any Somali or Kenyan of Somali origin. The GSU is what comes when the powers-that-be feel that Somali Kenyans need to be taught a lesson. The GSU happens when there has been an explosion, in Nairobi or elsewhere, because the thinking is that whoever detonates a grenade is a Somali terrorist.
That is now, but it started already long ago, when there was no GSU or terrorism in Somalia in the form of Al Shabaab. The Somali community in Kenya was regularly punished during the 1980s, when the Kenyan army massacred the people of the village of Garissa, and a year later in Malka Mari, and two years after that in Wagalla. Every time, it happened because a Kenyan had a complaint about a Somali bandit or troublemaker. Every time, a few hundred women had to be raped and equal numbers of men had to die. We had a break during the nineties, but when armed struggles and the War on Terror racked our neighbouring nations in the 2000s, it all started again.
The Somali community in Kenya was regularly punished during the 1980s
Everyone in our five-story building, inhabited mostly by Kenyans of Somali origin, in our usually quiet neighbourhood was up and confusion reigned. With all the corridor lights on, it seemed like it was daylight at 2AM. I quickly reached for a vest, composed myself, and opened the door that was being kicked by the police officers. “Where is your bullshit ID? We know you guys disguise as Kenyans. Get it out fast or we arrest you now,” said a tall, red-eyed man in a red hat.
We are Kenyans. We hail from Mandera, an ethnic Somali province of Kenya; we went to school in Kenya, we sing the Kenyan national anthem. When we work, we work for Kenya. We hate terrorism; we lost friends and neighbours in the terrorist siege of Westgate Mall. Many actual Somalis came to Kenya to escape from terrorism in the first place. But after Westgate, the GSU came to raid us here, and the raids have not stopped. (They never found a Westgate attacker, by the way. The GSU is not that good at catching actual terrorists.)
My cousin and I had our IDs to prove our Kenyan-ness. We didn’t have to look for them; we wear them on our bodies every day. Only my cousin Abdi wasn’t prepared. He is Kenyan by birth and schools in Nairobi, but at sixteen years of age, according to Kenyan law, he can only apply for an ID when he turns eighteen. He started to sweat and shake and gripped my hand like it was his favourite dish, a chicken bone. “Don’t’ break my hand,” I whispered. “Stay calm. Do you have your birth certificate?”
“Hizi kitabulisho ni zenu? Are these IDs yours?” one of the officers asked. They then all proceeded to ask us a barrage of questions. Where were you born? Who’s your area chief [a local government representative, II]? Who brought you to Nairobi?
“Excuse me, sir. My cousin is sixteen years old. He has a birth certificate. Can you please give us a few more minutes to locate it? It’s within the house.” The two men who were checking our documents immediately refused. One of them said that my under-age cousin was an illegal immigrant and therefore ‘dangerous to the security of Kenya.’ “People like this guy are the ones who carry out attacks,” said another. There had been an attack in our neighbourhood last week. A grenade explosion had killed six people and wounded several others.
Unhappy with this remark, I told the officer to stay away from such troublesome allegations against my cousin. This agitated him even more and he called on the other officers to arrest us. But they were still busy combing our house, kicking bags and emptying drawers. Some of the officers took turns using the toilet, standing there urinating with the door open while talking to their peers. One used the toilet for a ‘number two’, but didn’t flush. The smell was strong. It wasn’t his fault, as we hadn’t had running water for more than five days now, but how I wished he had used the water we stored in jerry cans in one corner of the toilet.
They continued to refuse our request for time to look for the birth certificate and told us that we were to spend the rest of the night behind bars. “You are all aliens and we can do whatever we want,” said one. “We can even plant explosives in this house.” He then said that we could ‘solve this issue’, adding threateningly: “You will regret it if you want to be a wise guy.” It only dawned on me later that he was asking for a bribe.
We were told the three of us were under arrest and that we should quickly dress. In the process of going through his wardrobe, my youngest cousin took advantage of the situation and located his birth certificate and student identification card. We alerted the two officers who had initially checked our documents, but they couldn’t be bothered. One of them, pointing his index finger right at Abdi’s right eye, said: “We know these documents are not genuine. Your hair says it all; you’re not a Kenyan. Stop wasting our time.”
Downstairs we found we were not alone. There were about forty people, ranging from the very young to the very old, also under arrest. Some of them had their hands cuffed. Just as we thought we would be bundled into a lorry to be taken to the police station, the officers moved to the building next door to carry out a similar operation. We waited.
The boss wants money
Then I saw a pot-bellied man, who appeared to be the boss of the officers, waiting for them a little way from us. I introduced myself, handed him my national identity card and explained that I was Kenyan and so were my two cousins. “Listen my brother,” he said, “This is Kenya. Do you have 100,000 Kenyan Shillings? If you give me that, then the three of you will walk free now.” I wanted to scream, but managing to find the inner peace in me, only replied politely. “Sir, we don’t have money. We are all good Kenyans and since you have seen our documents, please let us go.”
He then walked over to a police car that was parked a few meters away and we followed him. He sat down at the passenger side and looked at us, standing there as if we were criminals. Then he told us to “brace [ourselves] for a cold, boring night” as he was not “ready to take us to the police station”. We continued to plead, but he kept saying we were not Kenyans. Only after three and half hours of hanging around the car and looking at one another did the man tell us we were hard-headed, and to go back to the house.
Kenyan police arrest you on suspicion of terrorism, then offer to let you go if you give them money
Many of our neighbours were not so lucky. They were bundled into police vehicles and taken to different police stations within the city. Some did what I had refused to do: they parted with hard-earned money, even though they had Kenyan identification documents. The urban Somali refugees were thrown into police custody. In total, close to a thousand people were rounded up. When the police stations couldn’t hold the numbers, the government declared that the Kasarani sports stadium was now a police station.
News reports and tweets described what was going inside the four corners of the stadium as horrific. There was heat, physical abuse, no hygiene. Food brought to the detained by relatives was rejected; access to the stadium was denied even to officials from the Kenya National Human Rights Commission until days later.
A close friend of mine, a Somali Kenyan like myself, was held on charges of being a ‘refugee’. When his case finally came to court, he proved that he was a Kenyan national. When the police prosecutor was asked if he would now drop the charges, he said in a very easy way, “Yes, your honour.” As if there had never been anything wrong.
Nowadays, I wonder if we could we be heading back to the raids and killings of the 1980s. The lack of response from president Uhuru Kenyatta to a report about the Garissa, Malka Mari and Wagalla massacres that was presented to him last year by the national Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) doesn’t augur well. The report recommended that the President apologise for the failure of the State to avert the killings; that all the victims be compensated within two years; and that those (mentioned in the report) who planned, implemented and covered up the killings are barred from public office. Many are skeptical that the Kenyan government will ever admit the facts.
Last week, scores of people were killed by armed attackers in Mpeketoni, close to Mombasa. There is still much speculation in Kenya on whether they were Al Shabaab or local militants.
The Kenyan security services apparently know more. News reports immediately after the killings quoted sources from the National Intelligence Services as saying that they had had information about the impending attack and that they had informed the police and the army. The spies were quite upset that Kenya’s armed men of law and order had apparently just let it happen.
It is therefore doubtful that the perpetrators of the Mpeketoni attack will ever be caught. Just like the Westgate attackers haven’t been caught, or the people behind the recent explosions in my neighbourhood. I am told there is a War on Terror, but I am still to see any evidence that this War is actually fighting any Terrorists.
The president blames an ethnicity
President Kenyatta, of Kikuyu background, meanwhile, has framed the attack in ethnic terms, saying that the (Kikuyu) community of Mpeketoni was attacked by another ethnicity. We know which ethnicity he means to blame. We, with our non-Kenyan hair, are awaiting the next raid.
Ibro Ibrahim is a pseudonym. The author is a Somali Kenyan.