Nairobi, Kenya - In Eastleigh, a mostly Somali area of Nairobi, residents say they constantly look over their shoulders when entering grocery stores, to make sure no security agents are following them.
Some families have locked themselves up in their homes, and children rush to alert their parents whenever they see a policeman passing by. Some say they would like to leave Kenya, but are worried for their safety.
Over the past three weeks, Somalis living in Kenya have been under attack by a police force often criticised for brutality and corruption. Somali neighbourhoods in Nairobi are on lockdown, and those who have protested, including rights activists, have been labelled as terrorist sympathisers.
Somali-owned businesses in Eastleigh have suffered millions of dollars in losses because of the operation, said Hassan Guled, the chairman of the Eastleigh Business Association. The Kenyan government has recently announced it is investigating 20 banks on suspicion they are funding the Somali armed group al-Shabab. Somalis call the move an "economic war".
I don't know why the Kenyan government is treating us like this. They can be kind and compassionate, but they opted to be cruel and heartless. God help us.
Operation Usalama (Peace) Watch began in earnest after a blast killed six people on March 31 in a mostly Somali area of eastern Nairobi. Since then, Kenyan security forces have been storming homes in the capital, rounding up thousands of Somali refugees and Somali Kenyans.
Ethnic Somalis have accused security forces of beating people, including children, stealing money and valuables, and raping women and teenage girls.
Last week 17 organisations - including Amnesty International, the state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Transparency International Kenya and the Kenyan branch of the International Commission of Jurists - said the security operation "constitutes discrimination contrary to the provisions" of the country's constitution.
The United Nations' refugee agency said it was "disturbed" by reports of abuses connected with the operation.
Zipporah Mboroki, the spokeswoman for Kenya's police, told Al Jazeera the operation will continue until Kenya "is safe". She said the police force has not received any complaints from the public about the operation, adding anyone can take their grievances to the independent policing oversight authority.
Kenya, which is home to about 2.4 million citizens of Somali origin, also hosts hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees. The country's decision to deploy troops to Somalia in 2011 has triggered retaliatory attacks by al-Shabab, whose fighters last year stormed an upscale mall in Nairobi and killed 67 people.
Somali refugees in Kenya have long suffered at the hands of Kenyan security forces. Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report "You Are All Terrorists", in which Somalis in Kenya described being subjected to beatings by the police, often causing serious injury and long-term pain.
Beatings, bribes and rape allegations
A three-week investigation by Al Jazeera has revealed that Kenyan security forces have committed abuses against Somalis, and the ongoing operation has not been carried out in a "humane" way, as the country's police chief, David Kimaiyo, has said.
"The operation was only to target criminal individual persons," not refugees or other foreigners in Kenya, said Kimaiyo on Citizen TV station. He denied that security forces harassed people during the operation, and said they did not "in any way" subject anyone to torture.
|Rights group slams Kenyan government for its treatment of refugees
But interviews with more than three dozen people inside and outside detention camps, jail cells and police stations, told a different story. Most of the victims spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals.
Police have arbitrarily detained large numbers of people, including pregnant women - some of whom later had miscarriages or gave birth at detention centres.
During the investigation, this Somali-Kenyan journalist was arrested for entering a detention camp with a video camera, held incommunicado for three days, and subjected to humiliating searches. His equipment - video camera, phone, tape recorder and notebook - was impounded, and returned after the video was deleted.
"Go to your home and leave us alone," this journalist heard a policeman yelling at a Somali Kenyan prisoner. He also heard a detective calling a prisoner a "goat" - a derogatory term police officers here sometimes use to refer to Somali refugees.
Many detainees were living in fear and degrading conditions, even after their Kenyan identification cards were verified. Some were forced to urinate and defecate inside their cells.
In camp after camp, detainees spoke of security guards asking them for bribes - or in some cases, for sex - in exchange for their release. Relatives of rape victims, including a pregnant woman and 16- and 17-year-old girls, said they were too afraid to speak out.
Victims of the crackdown told Al Jazeera that female police officers were unusually cruel, claiming that they ridiculed Somali women who suffered miscarriages at detention centres as being "too afraid to return to their country". Halimo - a Somali refugee who was kicked by a female officer in the abdomen, where she recently had an operation - said she was told to part with her jewellery to ward off arrest.
Pregnant and mistreated
The harrowing tale of Bisharo Hassan Hussein, a pregnant Somali refugee in Nairobi, is an example of the operation's excesses.
|Pregnant women have been detained during the operation, some of whom, like Sadiya, gave birth while in custody [Malkhadir Muhumed/Al Jazeera]
Hussein was in her room last week when, at around 2am, policemen stormed her apartment and ordered her to board a waiting truck. When she told them that she was unable to do so, they lifted her up and threw her inside. She landed on top of other detainees in the vehicle.
Hussein said she suddenly went into labour and started crying as the police truck began moving. She was released after passersby bribed a police commander with the equivalent of $14. She was later taken to a private hospital, where doctors operated on her after more than 10 hours of labour.
Her daughter, whose right side intermittently shakes from the head to the leg, was in an incubator for days. Hussein's bladder has been damaged, and she uses a catheter to urinate. She is still in the hospital with a swollen stomach.
Other detainees are being held in overcrowded, makeshift camps and police cells. Medical care is often lacking. The five-month-old son of Ilhan Mohamed Osman, a Somali refugee, had a high fever when Al Jazeera visited him recently at Nairobi's Kasarani football stadium. There was no doctor around to attend to him.
Zeynab Mohamed Muse "Bulhan", a refugee who was detained in the security operation, was hospitalised for suffocation and died two days later, according to relatives. And Mohamed Kadiye Robe, a 67-year-old diabetic with high blood pressure, reportedly died of shock after his whole family was arrested.
A new 'strategy of tension'?
Many Somali Kenyans now fear the crackdown could be a prelude to a wider government-led "strategy of tension" that could lead to their denationalisation. In the 1980s, Kenyan security forces launched a screening process that stripped tens of thousands of Somali Kenyans of their Kenyan nationality.
Last week, political and religious leaders from the Somali community met with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to discuss the issue. Kenyatta assured them that his government was not targeting any specific religion or community.
But many doubt the veracity of Kenyatta's pledge. Former Deputy Parliament Speaker Farah Maalim - an ethnic Somali - argued that the government is profiling Somalis "to curry favours" with Western countries.
Residents living in Nairobi's Somali areas have claimed that security agents are behind recent blasts in the city, with the aim of scapegoating Somalis. In fact, the suspects in custody for the attacks are non-Somalis.
|Somalis hit back at Kenya security crackdown
Meanwhile, the operation may be driving a wedge between Kenya's Christians and Muslims. Most Muslims and rights activists side with the Somalis, while many Christians are cheering the crackdown.
Among Kenya's Somalis, the operation has increased the fear of inter-communal violence. Many in Somali neighbourhoods said they were worried that any future attack will cause non-Somali Kenyans to turn on them. In 2012, after a blast killed several people in Eastleigh, mobs shouted, "Somalis must go," attacking Somali-owned businesses and homes. This was followed by days of skirmishes.
But Kenyatta has downplayed these fears. "This nation was built on the hard toil of 50 years, and it will not be divided by the atrocities of fools and murderers," he said this month.
'Let's start shooting'
Maina Kiai, a human rights activist and UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, warned about a situation developing in Kenya that could lead to large-scale ethnic violence. "Demonising an entire community is foolish... We don't want to radicalise even more a community that feels unwanted here," he wrote in the Daily Nation.
Somalis blame one of the Daily Nation's senior editors, Mutuma Mathiu, for setting the tone of the operation after he wrote last month that "every little, two-bit Somali has a big dream - to blow us up, knock down our buildings and slaughter our children".
"We are at war. Let's start shooting," he wrote in an commentary headlined: "Are we just going to sit around and wait to be blown to bits by terrorists?"
"Australia holds [immigrants] in horrible camps in Papua New Guinea," he noted.
The police, ethnic Somalis say, appear to be heeding Mathiu's words.
"I don't know why the Kenyan government is treating us like this," said Osman, the mother of the sick son at Kasarani stadium. "They can be kind and compassionate, but they opted to be cruel and heartless. God help us."
Follow Malkhadir Muhumed on Twitter: @mmuhumed
Source: Al Jazeera