Nairobi, Kenya – Sitting on a mattress in her cramped flat in eastern Nairobi, Ubah Abdi Warsame, a refugee from war-torn Somalia, points to her left ear and says that is where a Kenyan police officer booted her in the head.
She still feels pain, she told Al Jazeera. Memories of the December morning – when baton-wielding paramilitaries ransacked her apartment block and beat, detained and demanded cash from the Somali refugees inside – continue to disturb her sleep.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, it was not a lone example. The rights group describes in a new report a 10-week campaign of police beatings, rapes and extortion against Somali refugees in a misguided attempt to combat terrorism.
“We’d got used to hassle from the police and paying small bribes,” Warsame, 32, said. “But when they started searching houses, beating Somalis and taking them to the cells, it was quite terrifying. I have nightmares because of the beatings I got from police.”
“Refugees told us how hundreds of Kenyan police unleashed 10 weeks of hell on communities close to the heart of Nairobi.“
– Gerry Simpson, Human Rights Watch
The jobless mother-of-five, who fled violence and family strife in the central Somali region of Puntland in 2008, described being punched, kicked and manhandled by police officers wearing the red berets of Kenya’s paramilitaries.
Scores of refugees from the run-down area of Nairobi’s Eastleigh, known as “Little Mogadishu” for its big Somali population, were carted off to police stations, she said. After spending eight hours in an excrement-ridden cell, a friend secured Warsame’s release with a 5,000 shilling (US$60) bribe.
In its 68-page report released on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said Kenyan police tortured, raped, abused or detained at least 1,000 refugees between mid-November last year and the end of January this year.
“Refugees told us how hundreds of Kenyan police unleashed 10 weeks of hell on communities close to the heart of Nairobi, torturing, abusing, and stealing from some of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people,” said the group’s researcher Gerry Simpson.
|Kenyan police accused of torturing Somalians|
Seven women said they were raped by police. Officers repeatedly called the refugees “terrorists”, linking them to the hardline al-Shabab militia that wages war against a UN-backed government in neighbouring Somalia, the report said.
Masoud Mwinyi, a police spokesman, said its officers were unlikely to have committed such a large number of abuses, adding investigators would study the documents and assess whether the claims are credible.
“It cannot be true,” Mwinyi told Al Jazeera. “Remember, my brother, collecting 1,000 people is a big number, even if it were over a long period. Officers operate under a code of ethics and professionalism. I wouldn’t imagine that such a thing could happen without us knowing.”
The rights group also criticises the UN agency for refugee protection, UNHCR, for standing by as police wreaked havoc in Eastleigh. Simpson described a “deafening silence” from the UN over the abuses “even though they happened within a half-hour drive from their Nairobi offices”.
|A policeman patrols the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi [Reuters]|
But UNHCR’s deputy country director, Abel Mbilinyi, rejected the criticism. UN officials were on the ground in Eastleigh and other suburbs, securing the release of hundreds of Somali refugees that had been wrongfully locked up, he said.
Many refugees suffered during the anti-terror crackdown, but abuses fell short of “torture”, Mbilinyi added. Kenya generously hosted refugees from many African trouble-spots, but al-Shabab’s security threat had “diluted their commitment” to the rights of those from Somalia, he said.
East Africa’s biggest economy is home to about half a million registered Somali refugees, who have fled more than two decades of drought, war and inter-clan bloodshed. About 450,000 live in the crowded and sun-baked camps at Dadaab, close to the Somali border.
In December, when terrorist attacks were a regular occurrence, Kenyan officials described an “unbearable and uncontrollable threat”, and ordered all 55,000 refugees and asylum-seekers living in Nairobi to relocate to camps.
Al-Shabab, a hardline Islamist group with links to al-Qaeda, still causes alarm. The group made headlines again this month, when it emerged that one of the men accused of killing a British soldier in southeast London on May 22 had previously tried to join the Somali militia.
Michael Adebolajo, a Muslim convert who was arrested over the hacking to death of army drummer Lee Rigby, appeared in a Kenyan court in 2010, when he was alleged to have been preparing to enlist in al-Shabab’s ranks.
The UN and rights campaigners say rounding up refugees is no substitute for intelligence-led anti-terrorism operations. Simpson said the crackdown was “hardly an effective way to protect Kenya’s national security”.
Kenyan officials still seek to force all refugees out of towns and cities, but the order has been challenged in the courts by Kenyan human rights groups. Judges will decide whether the relocation is legal by June 30.
Wasia Masitsa, a lawyer for Kituo cha Sheria, one of the groups fighting the relocation of refugees from cities to camps, said Kenya’s government was breaking its own laws, as well as international agreements on refugees.
“Somali refugees who are living in Eastleigh and other urban areas should be allowed to stay there, until such time as there is safety back home,” Masitsa said. “When that repatriation occurs, it should be undertaken with dignity and respect for their rights.”
Dennis Likule, a lawyer for the Refugee Consortium of Kenya, said he expected judges to rule against the government’s relocation plan. Action against Somali refugees was partly a populist move ahead of Kenya’s elections, which took place in March.
“Operations happened before the elections, so that the government could appear to be addressing the security situation to voters.“
– Dennis Likule, lawyer
“Operations happened before the elections, so that the government could appear to be addressing the security situation to voters,” said Likule. “The elections also occupied so much media attention that the harassment and abuses against refugees got very little coverage.”
At this month’s London conference on Somalia, the recently-elected President Uhuru Kenyatta said Kenya shoulders the burden of hosting Somali refugees, and called for their return and resettlement in their homeland.
Security gains and a new government in Mogadishu make this more likely. Thousands of Somalis have already left Kenya voluntarily, while many other diaspora have returned from Europe and North America to help rebuild their tattered country.
But al-Shabab still controls swathes of countryside and sets off bombs in Mogadishu and other urban areas. Warsame remains cautious about safety back home and urges Kenyan not to be too quick to send Somalis packing.
“You welcomed us in to your country because we suffered a 22-year civil war,” she said. “Now you tell us to go back to Somalia, accusing us of contributing to insecurity in Kenya. But how can that be true? Why would we hurt somebody who is trying to feed us?”
With additional reporting by Mohammed Kahiye
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl