The Kenyan mothers fighting to end police brutality
Mothers whose sons were killed by police have united to fight for justice and protect other young men.
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Nairobi, Kenya – Victor was the first to be shot. The bullet entered his stomach, exiting from his back; his intestines fell out. He screamed his brother Bernard’s name. When Bernard raced over to save him, he too was shot. His head exploded, killing him instantly. In just seconds, the world of their mother Benna Buluma collapsed.
It was August 9, 2017. The two youths, aged 24 and 22, were returning from work to their home in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s largest slums. Victor worked in construction and Bernard as a tailor. A massive protest had erupted at the time, against alleged fraud in Kenya’s general elections and had made its way to Mathare. Victor and Bernard struggled to make it home amid the tensions.
The brothers stopped to speak with other youths in Mathare, when suddenly police opened fire with live bullets, sending them frantically running. Victor and Bernard joined the dozens of victims of police killings in the capital city during election violence that season.
“My life was torn apart,” says 50-year-old Buluma, known locally as “Mama Victor”. A photo of Victor hangs next to a worn stuffed bunny, on the metal sheets that serve as walls in her tiny home in Mathare, nestled within a narrow alleyway.
“My sons’ lives were taken as if they meant nothing,” she says, eyes glassy, as her leg shakes. For three weeks, Buluma was unable to retrieve their bodies from the morgue, lacking funds for the burials. Her sons left behind two small children, who Buluma now cares for after their young wives, overwhelmed from the stress, deserted them. Buluma’s traumatised daughter also disappeared, while her son remains too distraught to work, years after the tragedy.
Buluma’s despair, however, gave way to anger. In July 2018, at an annual pro-democracy rally in the city called Saba Saba, Buluma found the strength to fight back. She attended the event with other mothers of victims of police killings. An activist asked the mothers if one of them would be willing to speak.
“Many mothers have never spoken publicly about what happened to their sons,” Buluma tells Al Jazeera, her hands gently clasped together on her lap. “They have been threatened that if they report it or publicly talk about it the same officers who killed their sons will come for them or their other children.”
‘There was nothing left to fear’
At that moment, Buluma overcame her fears. Her voice boomed over the hushed crowd, as she revisited each painful detail of her sons’ killings and the anguish that continued to consume her.
“I knew that if I didn’t speak now then all these mothers who have lost their children will never get justice,” Buluma recalls. “If I don’t speak, my grandchildren could meet the same fate as Victor and Bernard … They already killed my sons. There was nothing left to fear.”
Her courage sparked what would grow into a new social movement of grieving mothers, wives and sisters who had lost loved ones to police violence. In 2020, the movement officially launched as the Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network (MVSN), which now has more than 70 members.
‘A significant development’
Along with several young men who have survived police brutality, these women are standing up to the police, determined to end extrajudicial killings. Irungu Houghton, executive director of Amnesty International Kenya, tells Al Jazeera that the mothers’ network represents a “significant development” in the country’s longstanding struggle against police abuses.
The mothers are building on a “rich tradition” of local organising, including in the 1990s when Kenyan mothers launched a hunger strike for the release of their children held as political prisoners, Houghton says. But their self-organising tactics, which are growing into a formidable social movement, make them unique in Kenya’s political landscape. They are “holding the state and their board rooms accountable to the realities facing the urban poor”, he adds.
Missing Voices Kenya, a coalition of organisations that monitor such deaths, has recorded 1,226 police killings and 275 enforced disappearances since 2007 when it began documenting cases. That was around the time the city’s slums were flooded with “killer cops” who shot numerous young men, accusing them of actual or alleged crimes. Locals refer to these police officers as “serial killers”. Last year, the group counted at least 187 extrajudicial killings and 32 cases of enforced disappearances in Kenya.
The vast majority of these victims are young men from Nairobi’s slums, where 70 percent of the city’s population is squeezed onto just 5 percent of its residential land. Severely neglected by the government, these areas often lack access to sewage, electricity, and indoor plumbing, while youth unemployment is sky-high.
Police entering the slums frequently arrest, extort, and kill residents with impunity, activists say. A week does not go by without activists posting on social media at least one face of a young man from these poverty-stricken neighbourhoods lost to a police bullet. Mathare has the highest number of cases.
“When you have such an unequal society, the police are there to make sure the poor people don’t rise up,” says Wangui Kimari, the co-founder of the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC). “One of the ways they do this is by enacting very violent policing in poor areas. There are narratives that people from places like Mathare are criminals and their killings then become legitimised in the public discourse just because of where they live.”
‘We started to feel stronger’
Owing to the lack of work opportunities in the slums, some residents resort to illicit businesses such as brewing unlicensed alcohol or drug peddling. Many illegally tap into the city’s water and electricity lines for use in their homes or businesses. The police take advantage of this to extort exorbitant bribes from residents, locals say.
During a recent visit to Mathare, Al Jazeera witnessed a plain-clothes police officer grab a young man, pulling him a few hundred metres away, where he was made to strip down to his underwear while he begged the police not to kill him. He was then shoved into an unmarked vehicle.
Many women and men of all ages trickled out of their homes to confront the police following the incident, hurling rocks at the officers. Police responded with tear gas, which wafted through the air for hours afterwards.
Residents warn each other when police are spotted in the area. They shout “kimeumana!” – a word in Sheng, the country’s urban patois, meaning trouble or disaster. They then shout louder and slam objects together, creating as much noise as possible, to warn others of approaching police, while trying to intimidate the officers into leaving the neighbourhood.
Owing to the power afforded to police and a weak state witness protection programme, which fails to adequately safeguard witnesses or families of victims from retaliation, many are too fearful to report police abuses to higher authorities.
The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) was established in 2011 to provide civilian oversight of Kenya’s police force. Yet more than a decade later, only a handful of officers have been convicted of a crime, despite thousands of complaints lodged.
Bruno Isohi Shioso, spokesman for Kenya’s National Police Service (NPS), tells Al Jazeera he cannot “confirm or deny” these allegations without “police reports or credible data”, but notes that “this is not to discount any crimes visited against slum youths”. He insinuated, however, that some of these killings could be due to “gang feuds”.
Asked about police impunity for killings, Shioso responded: “When police are involved in any criminal undertaking, stern and decisive action is taken. We as the police establishment abhor police malpractice and don’t condone it.”
Those words do not assuage the pain of numerous mothers. That is where Buluma comes in. Whenever she hears of another youth shot dead, she rushes to lend emotional support to their mothers, whom she assists to file statements against the police, speak to the media, and join protests.
In the rare instance that a case makes it to court, the mothers provide each other courtroom solidarity, staring down police intimidation through their numbers. The network also supplies food to families reeling from the loss of a male breadwinner.
‘Starting to heal’
One woman Buluma has helped is Lilian Njeri.
In 2018, Njeri, now 48, discovered her son, 21-year-old Anthony Kinuthia, had been killed in Dandora, an impoverished Nairobi suburb, when a photograph of his corpse was posted on the Facebook page “Dandora Crime Free”, a once common tactic of Nairobi’s police.
These pages display “wanted” photos of various youths, and then images of their executed bodies. Police posting the images boast about weeding out “thieves” and “criminals”.
According to what Njeri gathered through witnesses, Kinuthia was detained as he was coming home from the mosque following prayers. She believes the police mistook Kinuthia for another Muslim man, whose “wanted” picture appeared on the page.
Later, the Facebook group posted a photo of Kinuthia’s uncle, after he was heard screaming – “Tony is not a thief! Why did they kill him?” Njeri believes this was a tactic to prevent the family from speaking to the media or filing a police report. The uncle went into hiding. Many people were too scared to attend the funeral, Njeri says, holding back tears. “After the burial, they posted that same photo of my dead son three more times just to torture us.”
Njeri was too frightened to file a police report. But six months later, she says the police came for her only remaining son, now 30. Bystanders intervened and demanded the police take him to a police station and properly book his arrest instead, at which point police killings become less common.
A local activist helped Njeri lodge a complaint with the IPOA, which, like most, produced no results, she says. In 2020, Njeri met Mama Victor, as she calls Buluma.
“I finally realised that I wasn’t alone,” Njeri says, releasing a short sigh – a temporary reprieve from attempts to choke back sobs. “I’m starting to cope with life again. If she could lose both her sons on the same day and still survive that, then so can I. She taught me that life can continue.”
However, even for emboldened mothers in Mathare, one name never fails to send chills down their spines: Ahmed Rashid, from the notorious Pangani police station. In 2017, Rashid was caught on camera executing two unarmed men in the Eastleigh neighbourhood, not far from Mathare.
“He has my son’s blood dripping from his hands, yet he is still allowed on our streets,” says an indignant 52-year-old Fidesia Wamburu Gitau. She says her son Kevin, then 22, was killed by Rashid in 2019.
Kevin earned a living selling fruit and juice in Nairobi’s city centre. Rashid accused him of stealing an iPhone and demanded the equivalent of $868, Gitau says. The family denied the allegation of theft and could not raise the funds to pay the bribe.
“My son was a polite and hard-working boy. He knew how to make his own money; he was not a criminal,” Gitau tells Al Jazeera, holding a photo of Kevin between her fingers. “And even if he was a thief, it’s not right to kill him. What is the point of having courts in this country if the police can just execute our children on suspicion of doing something wrong?”
Gitau says the family reported the death threats to the IPOA. However, three months later Rashid came for Kevin as he was heading to her home to pick up his toddler.
“[Rashid] put a sack over Kevin’s head,” Gitau says, repeating witness testimonies. “He forced Kevin to kneel down as he begged for his life.” Rashid then shot at Kevin’s head and chest. More bullets went into his hands, which were raised in a surrender position.
Buluma rushed to Gitau’s side and helped her file a statement at the Pangani police station and to the IPOA. The IPOA retrieved a bullet from Kevin’s body during the autopsy and two witnesses who say they saw the killing have come forward. But Rashid has not faced any consequences. “We still have no justice,” says Gitau, shaking her head in frustration.
She and many other mothers expressed distrust of the IPOA, explaining that cases can go on for years without the organisation contacting the families with updates. Al Jazeera contacted the IPOA several times for comment, but did not receive a response.
It is hard to find someone in Mathare who does not have a horror story about Rashid. Pius Kimani’s 25-year-old brother Christopher Maina, known as “Maich”, was killed by Rashid in 2017, he says. The story the surviving brother narrates follows a familiar pattern: Maina was on his knees, begging for his life, before Rashid unleashed a series of bullets into his body.
Maina at the time had reformed himself from a life of crime; he was working with Mathare Green Park, a movement formed in 2016 of reformed gang members who cater to the unmet needs of their community. They transformed a large piece of public land in Mlango Kubwa into a community park and agricultural fields, along with providing rubbish-collecting, security, and clean water.
According to Kimani, most of the youths who founded the movement have since been killed by Rashid.
“We still see Rashid all the time,” 21-year-old Kimani says, glueing his eyes to the cement floor in a formerly abandoned government building in Mlango Kubwa, which he and other youths transformed into a community library.
“He likes to walk around, beat his chest, and brag about it. But we are powerless in the slums, so there’s nothing we can do. We hope our mothers and sisters can protect us from these police, so that we can live without seeing all this death.”
In response to the numerous allegations raised against Rashid by families in Mathare, Shioso, the police spokesman, told Al Jazeera that he “can’t discuss any of our officers, especially when there is no [legal] action he or she may be facing”. Rashid in the past has denied any wrongdoing, referring to the allegations as “pure rumours being passed around by some of my colleagues envious of my effectiveness in executing my duties”.
‘One day we will see justice’
Just a few days ago, Rukia Shaban was once again considering suicide.
“It’s something I’m constantly thinking about,” the 35-year-old says. “Sometimes I just feel like I can’t take the stress any more. The only thing keeping me alive is the mothers’ network [MVSN]. If it wasn’t for them I would have killed myself a long time ago.”
Shaban’s 17-year-old son Ramadhan Bakari was murdered in 2020. He was a high school student and ran a small business selling clothes at an open market in Eastleigh. While at the market on the afternoon of December 10, Bakari and his friend were beaten and detained by what they suspected were plain-clothes police.
Bakari’s friend, who was later released, informed Shaban that they were arrested by “Blackie”, another notorious “killer cop” from the Pangani police station. Shaban desperately searched for her son at hospitals and various police stations, but all the officers denied he was in their custody.
At the Pangani station, Shaban begged for help. But the police were only interested in assisting if she paid a bribe. She sold her possessions and offered to pay anyone who could help find her son. Buluma stepped in. She put her in touch with media and rights organisations.
Two weeks later, on Christmas day, Bakari’s body was found floating in a river around the neighbourhood of Kasarani. An autopsy determined that Bakari died of strangulation by either a rope or wire and internal bleeding in his head from blunt trauma to the brain.
Rights groups suspect that police are shifting to strangulation when carrying out extrajudicial killings to avoid leaving behind bullets that can be linked to the shooter. Buluma says she believes this change of tactics is in response to her movement’s success in demanding independent investigations into police murders.
With the help of Buluma, Shaban filed a police report and lodged a case with the IPOA. The investigation into Bakari’s death, however, has reached a standstill, Shaban says, because the friend who was detained alongside Bakari is too afraid to come forward as a witness. But the other mothers have given Shaban hope.
“They have made me believe that one day we will see justice for our children,” she says. “And that hope is what keeps me alive.”
The mothers also offered 28-year-old Zacheas Okoth new life after he was shot in the stomach by the Kenyan armed forces during election violence in 2017. Before the shooting, Okoth was training to be an electrician and working as a flooring installer. Now he cannot do any physical labour. “I can’t even bend or kneel down without feeling a lot of pain,” he says.
‘Even if I cough it hurts so much’
The stress of being unable to support his wife and child caused friction in his marriage. The couple separated after the shooting.
But he has found a new family: the mothers. “They support me and care for me. If I’m hungry, they will find me food,” he says. “They have given me strength to tell my story.”
As Buluma’s movement grows, so do the threats. Harassment followed the launch in October of a book developed by MVSN, entitled They Were Us. It chronicles the stories of families who have been impacted by police violence.
Gitau says she was interrogated by plain-clothes police three days after the event; they surrounded her at a market where she sells food, demanding to know the names and addresses of her other children.
Buluma’s home was also broken into the day after the book launch. She has ruled out an attempted robbery, as her phone was charging on a table in plain sight and was not taken. The bag that the books were placed in, however, was ripped open.
But intimidation is not new. Buluma says she has been followed numerous times by plain-clothes police; she practises caution by staying alert and varying her routes home. Yet she remains undeterred.
“Each time a mother joins our movement our demands will become louder,” she says. “These police should be scared of us – not the other way around.”