Little Mogadishu, Under Siege

In the wake of the Garissa University attack, Somali expats in one Nairobi neighborhood are caught between an increasingly indiscriminate al Shabab and a heavy-handed, brutal police force.


NAIROBI — Eastleigh is bursting at the seams. This Nairobi neighborhood of some 350,000 people is overrun with food stands, clothing stores, and electronics shops, packed so tight the booths and tables are practically stacked on top of one another. Pedestrians rushing from store to store are often forced off Eastleigh’s crowded sidewalks and into its muddy streets. Women in hijabs chatter on smart phones while men sit on plastic chairs outside local restaurants, drinking black tea turned beige with camel’s milk.

Eastleigh is a predominantly Somali neighborhood — hence its nickname, “Little Mogadishu.” A suburb of Nairobi, the town is an economic powerhouse doing some $100 million of business each month. It is one of East Africa’s most vibrant commercial centers, built by Somalis who have been migrating to Kenya since the early 1990s when their country collapsed under the weight of war. Somalis have invested heavily in the enclave, and bulk imports of electronics and textiles from Asia and the Middle East are sold here. “Somalis have brought money and development,” said Hussain, the 65-year-old chairperson of the Eastleigh Residents Community. “There are more buildings, more business, more ideas.”

On April 2, four al-Shabab gunmen carried out a brutal attack on Garissa University, killing nearly 150 people during a bloody, 15-hour siege. In a show of solidarity, Little Mogadishu made contributions and donations to the grieving families, making donations to the Kenyan Red Cross as it tried to manage the fallout from the assault. Three days after the attack, there was a peaceful protest against the Garissa attacks in Eastleigh. The day after that, the community leaders of Eastleigh held a food drive, followed by a blood drive the next day. Six days after the massacre, Eastleigh held an interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Yet an unmistakable sense of unease permeates the community. In a speech two days after the attack, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to take the fight to al-Shabab. But he added that “the planners and financiers” of the attack were “deeply embedded” in Kenyan communities. Radicalization, he cautioned, “occurs in the full glare of day, in madrasas, in homes, and in mosques with rogue imams” — referring, it seemed, directly to communities like Eastleigh.

Increasingly, Eastleigh’s Somali community is caught between an al-Shabab that is now targeting Muslims and Christians alike, and an emboldened Kenyan security apparatus willing to go to extreme measures in an attempt to root out radical elements in Somali communities like this.

The tension can be traced back to 2011, when Kenya began contributing soldiers to the African Union’s military initiative to take on the al Qaeda-affiliated, Somalia-based al-Shabab. In response, the group declared war on Kenya. Since late 2011, there’s been a surge in violent attacks on Kenya — for all of which al-Shabab has gleefully claimed responsibility. Al-Shabab facilitated the 2013 Westgate attack that killed at least 67, and the 2014 Nairobi bus bombings that resulted in three deaths and 62 injuries. Later that year, the group also carried out a bombing in Nairobi’s Gikomba market that left 12 dead and 70 injured, and another bus attack in Mandera that killed 28. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

And regardless of its Somali population, Little Mogadishu has not been spared. In 2012, one person was injured in a grenade attack at Eastleigh’s biggest mall. In June 2013 another grenade attack injured three at a hotel. In April 2014, two bombs exploded at a gas station and a restaurant in the neighborhood, killing six. Later that month a car bomb exploded outside the police station in the area, killing four. Al-Shabab is suspected of carrying out all of these attacks.

Eastleigh has not been content to sit idle – and is not afraid to direct its gaze inward. Community leaders say it’s a lack of options that turn young people to al-Shabab — a common explanation for what drives them to militant groups around the world. “If they start with that, then they can attract the terrorists and they can be paid to bomb somewhere,” said Rahma Mohammed, a Somali-Kenyan born in Eastleigh, and a research officer at the Eastleighwood Youth Forum, a well-known nonprofit that helps young people in the neighborhood find constructive outlets for their energy and abilities. And so, at the end of every month, the youth forum hosts a “peace forum” to encourage unemployed, desperate, and bored youth to stay away from the petty crime that can land them in the wrong crowd and lead them to work for al-Shabab to make money.

At the peace forums there are refreshments including chips, fruit juice and soda, music, and discussions about “terrorist activities” and “radicalization.” According to Rahma, an average of 400 young people attend each gathering. The organization offers everything from computer and language trainings, even talent showcases for the youth. Rahma said the group’s leaders have been threatened by al-Shabab because of their counterterrorism work.

But no matter what good faith gestures the people of Eastleigh show, local authorities seem unmoved. It has been standard protocol for the Kenyan police to storm Eastleigh after attacks like the one at Garissa. As the people in Eastleigh describe, police forces “swoop,” arriving in droves, riding massive army trucks to “round up” and “crack down” on the community’s residents in the name of security. The police will rush apartments, brandishing AK-47s, banging on doors, demanding to see national identification cards. Along the way, they trash homes, steal citizens’ property, and take bribes.

Following a string of small-scale attacks in early 2014, the Kenyan police rounded up and arrested thousands of Somalis last April. Hundreds were reportedly held in putrid conditions in local police stations, and more than a thousand were held in Kasarani sports stadium; journalists and humanitarian organizations were banned from entering, eventually sparking an international outcry.

Revelations of the Kasarani “concentration camp,” as local Somali Kenyans referred to it, seemed to magnify the day-to-day dread the Kenyan police provoke among Somalis. As those I spoke with in the community attested, every day, authorities sweep through Eastleigh, allegedly on the lookout for illegal immigrants who could be terrorists. These extensive and haphazard operations, they say, often end with bribes and beatings.

In the heat of the crackdown in April of last year, Human Rights Watch issued a call to the Kenyan government to “stop the arbitrary arrests and detentions, extortion, and other abuses against Somalis.” According to the organization, almost 4,000 people were reportedly detained and arrested in Nairobi and Mombasa in less than two weeks. (Mombasa is the second-largest city in Kenya, and has a sizable Somali and Muslim population.)

Those I spoke with in Eastleigh who’ve been on the receiving end of a police crackdown say that the harsh treatment is still ongoing, and renewed in the wake of the Garissa attacks.

“If you don’t give them money, they will beat you,” said Habib, a 26-year-old student who says he has been stopped by the police more times than he can count. He still has bruises and scars on his arm from an encounter with them three weeks ago.

“What crime have I committed by not having my ID?” Odhiambo asked, recalling his own arrest on Christmas Day. The Kenyan community organizer lives in Eastleigh, and had gone out to buy airtime minutes for his phone when the police pulled him over and shook him down. He didn’t have his phone with him, “so I had to make some shouts,” he said, yelling in the street to attract attention to the situation. Eventually someone went to his house and brought the ID to the police. After the Garissa massacre, he doesn’t leave his house without his proof of citizenship.

It’s these kinds of incidents that lead Somalis in Kenya to feel divorced from the very force that is supposed to protect them from violent radicals like al Shabab. “Instead of building a good relationship with the police, they [the police] are hardening the community,” Odhiambo said.

And this growing distance may very well be hindering local efforts to improve security. The Eastleighwood Youth Forum regularly surveys hundreds of its young adult constituents about terrorist recruitment and activity. But the survey conductors say that the constant clash between citizens and the police hinders their ability to gather information.

“Everyone fears the police. They try to look for a simple mistake, especially in Eastleigh,” Odhiambo said. He went on to explain that no one would want to do anything to attract the police’s attention. Those who “come forward,” he added, have been interrogated roughly. “The police’s lack of discretion, in turn, leads to fears that al-Shabab may find out about the leak and target the person giving information, or that person’s family.” (Attempts to reach the police to discuss the efficacy of its policing tactics in Eastleigh were unsuccessful.)

On Monday, April 6, the Kenyan planes bombed a pair of al-Shabab training camps in Somalia. Later, an eyewitness told BBC Somali that the attack, which wounded three innocent civilians and destroyed livestock and wells, had failed to hit any al-Shabab assets. Five days later, on April 11, the Kenyan government called on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to close the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya’s northeast on the grounds that it is where al-Shabab plans its attacks, and to the repatriate the more than 500,000 Somalis that had fled there, some of whom have been living in the camp for more than 20 years. The U.N. has rejected Kenya’s request, and points out that closing Dadaab would be a breach of international law.

Even before the bombings began, the Somali community in Kenya had been bracing for blowback. It arrived with the news about Dadaab camp. Closing the biggest refugee camp on the planet is no small task, and it’s illegal to force refugees to move, so nothing may come from the government’s call. No matter the outcome, the message to the Somali community in Kenya from the government is clear: We don’t want you here.

At the April 7 blood drive, more than 100 people came out to give blood, according to a staff member with the Kenya Red Cross. Under a white tent, connected to IVs, donors reclined on black chairs with their feet up to simulate blood flow. They chatted, winced, and laughed. Many were quick to point out that al-Shabab chooses its victims indiscriminately, killing Somalis and Muslims alongside Kenyans and Christians.

Many in Eastleigh agree with Kenyatta’s suggestion to look inward. “What has happened, and what the president has said is true,” said Ahmed Mohammed, the Secretary General of the Eastleigh Business Community, a coalition that represents over 20,000 businesses. Dressed in a crisp gray suit, he was one of the main coordinators of Tuesday’s blood drive. “Someone, somewhere must know something about these people,” he added.

Others strike a more conciliatory note. Fatuma Bashir, a 19-year-old student, talked and winced while giving blood. “At the end of the day we have to forgive them. Peace is important in the world.”

Photo Credit: Tony Karumba / Stringer

Amanda Sperber is a journalist based in Nairobi and Mogadishu. Twitter: @hysperbole