Harassment haunts Somalis in Kenya, a year after Westgate attack

Mass arrests, extortion, deportation and suspicion: one year since Somali gunmen staged a four-day massacre in Nairobi`s Westgate mall, Somalis in Kenya say the attack has left their community battling harassment and denigration.

AFP| Updated: Sep 19, 2014, 09:19 AM IST

Nairobi: Mass arrests, extortion, deportation and suspicion: one year since Somali gunmen staged a four-day massacre in Nairobi`s Westgate mall, Somalis in Kenya say the attack has left their community battling harassment and denigration.

"The Somali people in Kenya strongly condemned the attack on Westgate, but they were collectively punished for it," said Aden Ahmed, a refugee living in Nairobi`s Eastleigh district, a largely ethnic Somali area of the city.

The crowded district crossed by dusty and bumpy streets is dubbed "Little Mogadishu", after Somalia`s war-ravaged capital.

Some 450,000 Somali refugees live in Kenya, many of them refugees from the bloody insurgency led by Al-Qaeda-linked Al- Shebab, which claimed the Westgate attack in revenge for Kenya`s military role in Somalia.

But much of Kenya`s northeast is also ethnically Somali, including many savvy entrepreneurs and traders who play a key role in the economy.

It was in Eastleigh that the four Westgate Shebab gunmen allegedly based themselves while planning their attack, spending time training in a gym in the busy district.

On September 21, 2013, they drove across the capital to Westgate, storming the crowded complex, firing from the hip and hurling grenades, killing at least 67 people.

During the siege, businessmen from Eastleigh delivered food and water to the soldiers and medical teams surrounding the complex as the battles inside raged.

Ethnic Somali Kenyans in the security forces also risked their lives to bring out shoppers from the bloodbath.

"We suffered at home in Somalia at the hands of the Shebab, while in Kenya, the security forces became like another `Shebab` -- in the way they treated us," Ahmed told AFP.

In April, Kenyan authorities launched mass round-ups, saying they needed to weed out Shebab sympathisers following a string of militant attacks.

"Police fully understand that most of us have nothing to do with Al-Shebab but we are the cash cow, like a bank ATM," said Idris Shiekh Abdurahman, a businessman.

"Once you are arrested, money is your solution and your innocence is nothing."

Somalis in the country were left terrified of retaliatory attacks, while refugees in cities have been ordered back to remote northern camps, amid growing pressure to return back home across the border.The order back to camps and push for Somalis to go home have been condemned by rights groups.

"These two initiatives opened the door to increased levels of abuse, extortion, and harassment of refugees by the Kenyan police," rights group Refugees International said in a report earlier this month.

"This comes as the Kenyan government is publicly urging large-scale returns of Somali refugees, even though the humanitarian situation inside Somalia is deteriorating severely."

Conditions in Somalia remain dire, with the United Nations and aid workers warning that large areas are struggling with extreme hunger and drought, three years after famine killed more than a quarter of a million people.

Police operations focused on Eastleigh, with residents accusing police of indiscriminately arresting ethnic Somalis, whether refugees or Kenyans. 

Thousands were bundled into the back of army and police trucks.

The UN refugee agency described conditions in a sports stadium being used as a giant holding pen and in police stations as "overcrowded and sanitary conditions are inadequate". 

Kenya hosts over 355,000 people in Dadaab refugee camp complex, the world`s largest, as well at least 50,000 urban refugees.

"The round-up and mass detention of Somalis in Nairobi... deliberately conflated immigration issues with counter-terrorism and has widened dangerous communal divides," the International Crisis Group (ICG) said earlier this year.

Muslim communities on Kenya`s coast have also complained about police crackdowns searching for Shebab supporters.

Human Rights Watch accused Kenya of "scapegoating and abusing" Somalis, saying such action "is not going to protect Kenyans, Somalis, or anyone else against more attacks", while the UN refugee agency has said it is "disturbed by reports of harassment and other abuses" during operations targeting Somalis.

"The Westgate attack was carried out by Shebab, but all Somalis were punished - arrested, mistreated and unlawfully deported," said Asha Jaji Mumin, a mother of six, who lives in Eastleigh.

"Some of our people disappeared after they were arrested."