Common Ground, Common Good

A call from Kenya's youth for unity, not reprisals, after Westgate Mall terror attack

As former rival gang members from Nairobi's slums we know that the best response to violence is peace and unity. In the wake of the Westgate Mall terror attack, we implore people in Kenya not to respond with violence and reprisals, especially against Muslims and Somalis.

By , Op-ed contributors

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    A man throws a bucket of water to put out flames from a burning tire set on fire in a street by rioting youths, following Friday Muslim prayers in Mombasa, Kenya, Oct. 4. A religious leader on Kenya's coast says that the Muslim cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Ismael died from a barrage of bullets late Thursday.
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We young people from Nairobi’s informal settlements offer our deepest sympathy to the victims and bereaved families of the terror attack that killed at least 61 civilians and injured more than 100 people in last month's siege of the Westgate Mall, for which Somali’s Al Shabab terrorist group has claimed responsibility. But we also wish to make an appeal both to our fellow Kenyans and to the world community: We implore you not to respond as these terrorists want us to respond – with interreligious violence and reprisals, especially against Muslims and Somalis.

As Kenya searches for answers, Kenyan police and citizens must be careful to avoid the unjust profiling and hatred that will divide rather than heal a grieving people. Ill-treatment of Somalis in Kenya has already been reported. We know from experience that the best response to violence is peace and unity – through compassion, compromise, and community dialogue.

Many of our community of youth dedicated to peace are former rival gang members who have now reconciled. All of us have felt the pain of politically motivated, inter-ethnic violence. We lost families and homes in the carnage following the 2007 Kenyan presidential election. But we also found a productive way to move past the violence.

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Through an initiative called Kenya Tuna Uwezo, we put aside our differences after more than a decade of aggression and led peace initiatives throughout this year’s election campaigns, resulting in nonviolent elections in Kenya. The project is supported by the United States Agency for International Development and implemented by NGO-partners Global Communities, PeaceNet, and Kituo Cha Sheria.

For us, reconciliation came through first discussing our grievances with external facilitators from the NGOs. We then worked within our community to seek what lay beneath each conflict – such as land rights and evictions, or discriminatory government policies. After this, we sat down with the groups with whom we were in conflict, who went through the same process.

Together, through community dialogue, we sorted through our perceived divisions to get to the issues that really divided us. We recognized times when politicians had manipulated us for their own purposes and we learned about our rights as citizens under the Kenyan constitution. And over time, together with our former enemies and now friends, we crafted solutions to the very real problems that have led to conflict.

Today, we campaign for peace in our settlements, educate our peers about their rights as citizens, seek to influence government policies to create a fairer Kenya, and directly address issues such as land rights.

In fact, we celebrated a significant step forward just a few weeks ago, related to a multi-year conflict between landlords and tenants which had led to the violent and illegal eviction of many homeowners in the Nairobi slum of Kiambiu. Through our program, the new tenants who had moved in illegally came to understand that this was a source of ongoing conflict and that there would not be peace until it was resolved.

After we worked with local authorities to ensure that no one would become homeless, in September, the illegal tenants handed these homes back over to their rightful owners, resolving a decade-long dispute.

Peace in Kenya is possible. And in the aftermath of the Westgate tragedy, it is important that all ethnicities and factions remain calm, embracing both our diversity and our unity, and understand that this is not a time to jeopardize the peace that we have worked for years to maintain in our country.

The slums of Nairobi are home to many different ethnic groups including large numbers of Somalis and other Muslim groups. These areas have been torn apart by conflict in recent years. Backlashes against Muslims and Somalis in Kenya could lead to escalating tensions and violence within our neighborhoods. We know the conditions of mistrust and misunderstand that lead to violence, and we must not allow this tragedy to undo all the progress we have made.

Make no mistake: The Westgate attack is not representative of interreligious, ethnic, or cultural differences within Kenya, but the actions of a minority group – violent, politically-motivated fanatics who seek to destabilize our communities and our country, and to terrorize the population in Kenya and beyond. Many Somalis now living in Kenya fled the violent abuse of Al Shabab, and should not be seen as its supporters simply because of their ethnic origin.

We call upon Kenyans and the many thousands of expatriates living in Kenya to be vigilant and to share information that can help in the fight against terror. We appeal to social media users to be responsible in their online communications and discussions, and ask all Kenyans to exercise tolerance and respect for human dignity and rule of law within the Kenyan Constitution.

We also call upon young people around the world, like ourselves, to support initiatives that seek to bring about peaceful resolutions to conflict. We commend the show of unity and support by political and religious leaders as well as the solidarity displayed by the international community in the aftermath of this tragedy; and we ask them to continue in this spirit not only in times of crisis, but always.

The program that brought our group together, Kenya Tuna Uwezo, translated from Kiswahili, means “We have the power!” Indeed, as Kenyans, and as citizens of the global community, we have the power to rise above terrorism, embrace our differences, and work together to build and maintain peace.

Dan Orogo, Karl Marx, and Alphonse Abong’o are members of the Kenya Tuna Uwezo Cohesion Champions. The group represents youth from Nairobi’s slum settlements who worked to spread messages of peace and non-violence leading up to the March 4 Kenyan presidential election and who continue to work for peace in their communities.

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