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ACCESS DENIED: A woman pleads with a human rights lawyer outside the football stadium in Nairobi, Kenya.
Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
ACCESS DENIED: A woman pleads with a human rights lawyer outside the football stadium in Nairobi, Kenya.

Collateral damage

Kenya | Kenya’s crackdown on terrorist attacks is catching refugees from other war-torn countries in its dragnet

Issue: "Fighting fatalism," July 12, 2014

Nearly 150 Congolese Christians, refugees in Kenya from their country’s long-standing civil war, gathered for worship in a Nairobi church on May 4. By nightfall the same day they were huddled in an overcrowded jail. Kenyan police then packed the group into trucks bound for a refugee camp over 300 miles east of Nairobi. Now over a month later, the Congolese Christians remain in the camp—many of them separated from family members who weren’t in church that May morning.

Phillip is one Congolese who stayed home, learning about the raid when his wife called to say Kenyan police were taking her and the other Congolese churchgoers to jail. Phillip (who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his safety) had stayed behind with the couple’s two small children, including an infant. When he arrived at the Nairobi jail, police offered little information, but mentioned security problems in the area. He returned the next day, and informed authorities his wife and others in the group carried documents proving their refugee status in Kenya. Nothing worked.

Instead Phillip’s wife is trapped in a far-flung refugee camp near the Somali border. Stunned, he says he has no idea when he and the couple’s children might see her again: “It is very, very difficult.”

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The Congolese dilemma is difficult, but not isolated. Over the last three months, Kenyan authorities have executed a massive security crackdown in Nairobi aimed at curbing Somali militants responsible for a series of brutal attacks that have killed more than 150 people across Kenya in the last 18 months. 

The most high profile attack came last September when members of the Somali terror group al-Shabaab besieged the popular Westgate Mall in Nairobi, leaving 67 people dead. A recent pair of deadly attacks erupted June 15-16 in the coastal city of Mpeketoni, as gunmen opened fire on Kenyans, killing at least 60 people. 

Witnesses said the attackers targeted non-Muslims by demanding victims recite verses from the Quran, and slaughtering those who failed. Some gunmen went door to door. “They came to our house at around 8 p.m. and asked us in Swahili whether we were Muslims,” one resident told the Associated Press. “My husband told them we were Christians and they shot him in the head and chest.”

Militants in al-Shabaab have vowed escalating attacks since the Kenyan government began sending forces to Somalia to battle the Islamist insurgents in 2011. The group has delivered on its extreme threats, and the Kenyan government has responded with extreme measures. 

In late March, the government ordered all refugees living in Kenya to report to one of two sprawling refugee camps in the country, despite a Kenyan court ruling in 2013 rejecting an identical order. (One refugee camp is 300 miles away, and another is more than 500 miles north of Nairobi.)

By early April, Kenyan police began detaining refugees across Nairobi, particularly Somalis living in the city’s Eastleigh section. Forces rounded up as many as 4,000 refugees in a one-month period, turning a Nairobi sports stadium into a giant holding cell.

Many Somalis say they have documents proving their refugee status in the country. Somalis began flooding into Kenya in the early 1990s, as Somalia descended into a brutal civil war. An estimated 50,000 Somali refugees live in Nairobi. 

Still, Kenyan police have sent thousands to refugee camps, and deported more than 300 back to Somalia in the last three months. UN officials have warned that some deportees face threats to their lives in Somalia, and have urged the Kenyan government to cease the widespread detainment of vulnerable refugees.

THOUGH THE CRACKDOWN has targeted mostly Somalis, the dragnet also has snagged hundreds of refugees from other nations, including South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Justin Semahoro learned about the Congolese church raid when a family member called from a Nairobi jail. Semahoro fled the DRC’s brutal war in 1998, and came to the United States as a refugee in 2008. Last year, he became a U.S. citizen, and works as a translator at a hospital in St. Louis.

He also keeps close contact with his family living in Nairobi. His brother and sister, and their respective families, have lived in the city as refugees for several years. Semahoro has helped support the families, along with help from his church, New City Fellowship (PCA) in St. Louis—a congregation with a substantial ministry to Congolese and other refugees.

Semahoro says his brother called from Nairobi on May 4 to say police had detained the families. “They never told them what the charges were,” he says.

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