Somali Refugees: Victims of both the terror of war and the war on terror

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Women board a police vehicle after being arrested in Eastleigh

I have been following up what’s unfolding in Kenya, more so on the fate of the Somali refugee community in Eastleigh, in the capital city of Nairobi after the barbaric shooting incident in a church in Mombasa, which was closely followed by three explosions all within Eastleigh’s 12th Street. I have been following on the reaction to the whole situation online on news sites, forums and blogs. Sadly what comes through from most of these quarters is sheer ignorance about the predicament of the Somali refugees in Kenya, a misunderstanding of the concept of terrorism and how to stop it, and finally, the question of religion in the entire debate.

My heart weeps for all the victims of the terrorist activities that have been visited upon Kenya. If my counting is right, there has been over 80 terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil since 2011. The cost of the lives lost, value of property destroyed, as well as the reputational risks that both Kenya and Somalia have suffered in their efforts to restore peace and order in Somalia have been enormous.

 

Home away from Home

Of all the states of the world, Kenya has perhaps borne the heaviest burden of catering for Somali refugees. The Daadab Refugee Camp in particular, notwithstanding its low quality of living, stands as the largest refugee facility in the world, and has played host close to a million Somalis for over two decades.

The Eastleigh district of Nairobi, on its part stands out as the economic hub of the Somali community in Kenya. Nairobi Central Business District Association (NCBDA) recently reported that the collective value of investments in the city by Somali businessmen based both in Kenya and in the Diaspora is in excess of $9.3 Billion.

This fact is brought home more powerfully by the total transformation that Nairobi’s Eastleigh suburb has witnessed over the last two decades. The area has grown from a dilapidated neighborhood to an ultra-modern city within a city, characterized by a 24 hours economy, thanks to the massive investment by the Somali refugee community. Today, Eastleigh is also popularly referred to as ‘Little Mogadishu.’

Kenya also played the all-important role of incubating Somali’s Government at a time when national leadership in Somalia was in the hands of warlords. It can still be recalled that a new Somalia Transitional Parliament was inaugurated in Nairobi in 2004, after which Abdullahi Yusuf was elected president of the budding Nairobi-based Transitional Federal Government.

More recently, when Somalia’s political stability was getting increasingly undermined by the Al-shabaab terrorist network, Kenya sent her troops across the border to support Somalia in its efforts to root out Al-Shabaab. A major victory in this regard has been the liberation of the port of Kismayo by Somalis with the support of Kenya as part of AMISOM. Before the liberation, Kismayo served as Al-Shabaab’s economic lifeline. Since then, a Somalia federal state with an interim Jubbaland Administration has been established consistent with Somali’s new interim constitution and in support of Somalia’s Federal government. Jubbaland has already contributed significantly in Somalia’s peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts.

Indiscriminate Security Roundups

However, there is a fundamental fact that I would wish to explain to the Kenyan government that the reason there are so many Somali refugees in Kenya is because the Somalis were running in escape from the terrors of a civil war that burnt Somalia for two decades. If Somalis didn’t value peace, as some supporters of the current operation argue, then why would they run away from the civil war in a country they love so much? The objective of Somali refugees in Kenya and Eastleigh in particular hasn’t changed. They are there in a quest for peace, a more dignified life, better education for their children, and a deeply seated hope for return to Somalia soon, now that there are credible attempts at rebuilding the country.

It thus breaks my heart to see the kind of indiscriminate rounding up of Somali refugees and locking them up in dingy police cells without access to the outside world that has been taking place in Eastleigh over the last few weeks. The Safaricom Stadium-Kasarani was quickly gazetted as a police station so as to accommodate screening of over 4,000 Somali refugees that had been rounded up in the police swoops. It’s the kind of pain that you’d experience if you saw your neighbor and his children suddenly descend on your beautiful kids with untold bullying, ridicule and unkindness for the simple reason that one of your children has misbehaved. I would have no problem if the neighbor decided to isolate the indiscipline child, but there isn’t a law in Kenya or any other civilized state that advocates for punishing someone for crimes committed by others.

While Kenya has every right to protect its citizens and everyone else within its borders from acts of terrorism, the use of government machinery to instill terror in the hearts of innocent refugee women and children on the basis of their ethnic profile, as has been witnessed in Eastleigh, has attracted condemnation from international circles, including the Human Rights Watch and the UNHCR. And keeping to its tradition as the most corrupt institution in the country, the Kenya Police once again stood out for its extortionist tendencies during the swoops. As it turned out, most of the Somalis arrested and brutalized in the operation are law-abiding and innocent civilians.

A major reason why I refer to this kind of operation as lacking in understanding on the dynamics of terrorism is the fact that not a single terrorist has so far been nabbed in the operation as far as I know. None of the 4,000 refugees that have been arrested have so far been directly linked to terrorism unless the Government is holding back such information. About 80 Somalis have so far been deported to Muqdisho for being in the country illegally, a move that has been faulted by the UNHCR, which argues that such people should be allowed to make requests for asylum, not deported into a country that is still experiencing violent armed conflicts.

Poor Investigation And Conviction record

That Kenya has a poor record of investigation and conviction of terror related criminals is beyond doubt. Despite display of heavy military equipment following the West Gate mall attack in September 2013, there hasn’t been any successful convictions of the terrorists or their accomplices. The attackers who barbarically sprayed bullets at worshippers in a church at Mombasa haven’t been brought to justice, and the script is the same for almost all other terrorist attacks whether in Nairobi, Garissa or at the coast. This makes me believe that even the current swoops could be intended to give the citizens a feeling that something is being done about the rampant problem of insecurity. As a I said earlier, Kenya has all of the legitimate reasons to undertake security operations which I fully support, but the question is how?

I must admit that I am not an expert on anti-terrorism, but it appears to me that more brain and less brawn could be all that Kenya and most other countries currently struggling with terrorism need to win the battle. With a more intelligent security unit, and more patriotic police officers (incorruptible) manning the check points on the routes through which terrorists smuggle their tools of trade into the country, I believe that the Government of Kenya can easily take on the agents of terror more effectively and at a lower cost and with lesser disruption of people’s lives than the current operation has already achieved or hopes to achieve.

Terrorism and Religion

Finally, I have seen the issue of religion drawn into the war on terror both in Kenya and across the globe. On quite a number of online forums, I have seen the close association that people have been drawing between Islam as a religion and terrorism. With this close association, a terrorist attack gets interpreted as an attack from the religion of Islam, and a hunt for the attackers quickly getting interpreted as a hunt down for Muslims.

But let us bring in some logic here. If the word “Islam” means peace, then anyone propagating terrorism contradicts the true teachings of Islam, and by his very deeds negates Islam.

Second, though a terrorist might subscribe to a certain doctrine (in most cases false interpretations of the Holy book), this does not mean that all Muslim faithful misinterpret the Quran, and are therefore terrorists or potential terrorists.

From these two simple arguments, it is clear that an attack from a terrorist should be taken for what it is, and not ascribed to an entire religion or community that has suffered enough of such attacks too. Likewise, a hunt for the attackers should be conducted with the same kind of understanding, and not be misinterpreted (either by the victims, authorities, Muslims and other religions, or by any other quarter) as a hunt down for a particular religion, as that’s a misrepresentation of facts.

Having said that, I must add that the Somali community in Kenya has the responsibility of helping to make Kenya safer as the current situation is hurting everyone. Given their vast investments and contribution to the national economy, a peaceful Kenya would be to their interest as an enterprising community. As such, the Somali community and the Muslim community in general can play a greater role in helping expose those who are threat to peace and instability in Kenya and everywhere else.

When all is said and done, I believe the ultimate solution to the problems facing the Somali refugee community in Kenya will come to an end if we support current efforts at rebuilding our state of Somalia. By setting aside once and for all the sectarian interests that have all along placed a stranglehold on Somalia’s neck, we have, like all the nations of the world, a chance to build a prosperous country that all Somalis both at home and across the world will be proud to call home.

 

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