Dadaab, Kenya – Twenty-eight-year-old Shukri Abdirashid Hussein remembers vividly the events of November 30.
Half asleep in his mud house in Dadaab’s Dagahley refugee camp near Kenya’s Somali border, Hussein awoke to commotion outside his door.
“I was awakened by the cries of neighbours, and before I knew what was going on, my door had been ripped open and three officers entered my house.”
What followed, Hussein said, was a stream of accusations. “They asked me where the gun is, before I could answer anything, they started beating me mercilessly with their guns and batons for more than an hour.”
Hussein was rushed off to the Dagahley police post where he was again beaten by authorities. He was then moved to the Ifo refugee camp police post in Dadaab where he spent three days. The conditions in the cells were horrible, he told Al Jazeera. He received one meal after 32 hours and was repeatedly hit with the butt of a gun.
After hours of mistreatment, Hussein was released after representatives of United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) requested authorities to let him receive medical attention. Even after his release, Hussein was interrogated for hours without being charged or told what crime he had committed. At the hospital, Hussein was admitted with a fractured shoulder and bruises across his back.
“The worst part is up to now, nobody has told me why I was arrested in the first place and why I received such inhumane treatment from people who are there to protect my rights,” he said.
I was awakened by the cries of neighbours, and before I knew what was going on, my door had been ripped open and three officers entered my house.
Campaign of retaliation
Experiences like Hussein’s are not isolated events but linked to what many refugees see as a larger campaign of retaliation by Dadaab police. After an attack on the Dagahley market on November 29 left one officer dead and another critically wounded, police escalated operations to snuff out Somali fighters.
The Kenyan government has, on several occasions, claimed that the Dadaab refugee complex, comprised of three camps and is home to over 400,000 people, most of whom are Somalis who fled war and famine in their homeland, is used as a safe haven by Somali armed group, al-Shabab and aided by local sympathisers.
Police assert that the latest attack on officers was carried out by al-Shabab fighters who fled to Block C3. Police arrested more than 70 people in security operations after the attack.
Police response to the attacks has left many refugees weary and frightened. Many fear police aggression is becoming institutionalised in the name of security and see efforts by refugee agencies and leaders to mitigate escalating violence have been feeble. In most cases, residents told Al Jazeera, the abuses go unreported for fear of repercussion.
“Once they [police] release you from jail, you thank God and never look back. Whatever has happened, you leave it to God for justice, because if you protest, they might put you in [jail] for a second time,” said Abdirahman Abdullahi Salat, a refugee in Hagadera camp.
In a 2012 report, Human Right Watch recorded widespread human right abuses by police against refugees following rampant killings and bomb attacks. It called on authorities to order all police forces deployed in Dadaab to treat residents with restraint and respect and offer compensation to the victims.
Leaders not spared
Mohammed Abdi Osman, 54, a community leader in Dagahley’s Block C3, also became the target of police retaliation. Aiming to capture the gunmen that killed their colleague, police began their search at Osman’s home.
“When they entered my house on the morning of November 30, I showed them my card as a leader, they disregarded it and instead started beating me nonstop for more than an hour,” he said, adding that officers were even “glad that they got me since I was a leader”.
As head of Block C3, Osman is tasked with handling all community affairs, including security within the neighbourhood. His pleas to the officers were futile as officers accused him of being an accomplice to the murder.
Osman received head injuries from the assault and still bears the scars of whip marks on his back. He said police treat the refugees with absolute disregard of their rights, adding that in most cases, refugees who are arrested are forced to part with the little money they have to secure their release. Al Jazeera witnessed the release of at least 55 refugees from police cells in Ifo camp. Many of them said they were held for few days without charges.
Many refugees interviewed by Al Jazeera discussed their experience with arbitrary detention and physical harm meted out to them by security personnel at length.
Most said they could not report cases of police brutality to any law enforcement agency since most cases are passed over or thrown out. Instead, camp residents prefer to report their matters to UNHCR in hopes it will put pressure on police to review cases.
“Whenever we get those kinds of incidents we approach the police and address them, reminding them that they have the obligation to provide security to refugees – we definitely engage the government, we engage the police to ensure that the rights of refugees are respected,” Emmanuel Nyabera, UNHCR spokesperson in Kenya told Al Jazeera.
He added that the agency conducts regular trainings for police where they are taught about the rights of refugees and the obligations they have to protect camp residents.
Osman said police never act on the killings and intimidation of community leaders by suspected al-Shabab fighters but are quick to react when police are directly targeted.
In most cases, he said, community leaders are forced to go into hiding for fear of their lives and repercussion from authorities.
“It is hard to be a community leader in the camps … if the police officers are attacked in your camp, you are treated as a suspect and are humiliated,” he said.
The assailants live within the refugee population and it is very hard for us to differentiate between the native refugees and those who came purposely to commit crimes in the camps.
At the moment the Dadaab police force is neither admitting nor denying any wrongdoing in their operations. The head of police in the refugee camps, Raphael Nguma, told Al Jazeera that complaints received from refugees on recent operations is under investigation but could not provide official comment about it. Nevertheless, authorities in Dadaab admit there is a security crisis in the camps, attributing the violence to infiltration of al-Shabab fighters and poor relation with the refugees.
“The assailants live within the refugee population and it is very hard for us to differentiate between the native refugees and those who came purposely to commit crimes in the camps,” Herbert Kimani, the deputy county commissioner in Dadaab, told Al Jazeera.
Kimani claims that there have been fewer incidents reported since 2013 that have warranted police to carry out operations. He adds that his office is working hard to try and reinitiate good relations with the population in the camps; a difficult task, he admits, with camp residents wary of security in the wake of the harsh treatment they’ve received.
For many refugees like Shukri and Osman, the response unleashed by the police when dealing with al-Shabab attacks is doing more harm than good and that unless they change their approach, refugees will be victimised in the guise of maintaining law and order.
“I don’t think I can work with the police after what they did to me. The population I represent has lost confidence in the law enforcers, unless they change their tactic in dealing with the insecurity, innocent people will be punished for crimes that they did not commit,” Osman said.