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How Kenya's 'war on terror' disrupts a thriving Nairobi district

A crackdown on Al Shabab threatens the success of 'Little Mogadishu,' a hub for Somali refugees, and could have a wider impact on the nation's economy as families flee and businesses fail.

By , Correspondent

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    Shoppers stroll First Avenue in Eastleigh, a neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, also known as ‘Little Mogadishu’ because it is home to immigrants from Somalia.
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Eastleigh, a mass of crowds and color in the heart of Kenya’s capital, is like no other neighborhood in Nairobi.

Nicknamed “Little Mogadishu,” it has bloomed in the past decade into one of East Africa’s most vibrant commercial centers, built mostly by refugees from Somalia who came here after that country collapsed in the 1990s.

While Eastleigh is jammed with refugees from the Horn of Africa, it is no Nairobi ghetto: Bulk imports of textiles, car parts, electronics, and veterinary supplies – often tax free – come here from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and are sold to merchants who trek in from all over East and Central Africa.
Moreover, at the muezzin’s dusk call to prayer, people don’t retreat to homes behind razor-wire-topped walls, the way much of Nairobi’s population does each evening.

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Instead, the place bustles. Eastleigh residents shop at night markets or sip camel-milk tea in sidewalk cafes, where one is more likely to hear Somali or Arabic than Swahili or English, Kenya’s national languages.

Yet in recent months, this sometime paradise for refugees has become hostile to outsiders. As Kenya cracks down on Al Shabab terrorists from Somalia following a devastating attack on the posh Nairobi Westgate mall last fall, Eastleigh residents are caught in the middle. Just as Little Mogadishu and its new glass-and-concrete high-rises are gaining a reputation as a story of progress and success, a cosmopolitan haven on the Horn, many refugees and immigrants are suddenly leaving.

They say that a two-month-long police operation using indiscriminate arrests, roundups, beatings, extortion, and forced deportations has made Eastleigh unlivable and is destroying an innovative community that benefits Kenya.

Police night raids and forcible entry into homes are creating a bad vibe not only in Africa’s traditionally most stable hub – but also on the Horn of Africa. New anti-terror policies, which at times appear to be a vehicle for Kenyan police to extort bribes, are causing many Somalis to vote with their feet – and to empty their bank accounts.

This spring locals have pulled as much as $250 million in “Somali flight money” from Kenyan banks, says Aly-Khan Satchu, the chief executive officer of Rich Management Ltd. in Nairobi, adding that the Eastleigh effect is one reason the Kenyan shilling has fallen to a two-year low. Travel agents are booking thousands of passengers who want to leave, as Eastleigh residents decide that even bullet-scarred Mogadishu is safer than Nairobi.

“[The police operation] was a very knee-jerk reaction to the terror attacks, one that could have ... long-term consequences,” says Bryan Kahumbura, a Kenya analyst for the International Crisis Group. “It could cause a lot of backlash [and] future attacks as a means of retaliating against Kenya.”

'Not a foreign place'

Abdi is a refugee from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, who has lived in Eastleigh for eight years after escaping political persecution in his home country. When he entered Kenya, hidden in the bed of a pickup truck, Abdi, who uses one name, had no idea where to settle. He was simply grateful, he says, that “no one was hunting me anymore.”

Arriving in Eastleigh, he immediately felt at home. “It was not a foreign place for me,” the graying 50-year-old recalls of his first night in Eastleigh, surrounded by fellow Ethiopian migrants. “10th Street was like Merkato [a district in Addis Ababa].”

Abdi borrowed $1,500 from friends in the United States and opened a business within months. Today, he rents a shop in Eastleigh’s largest mall, selling imported shirts and sneakers to buyers from as far away as Congo.

Such rags-to-relative-riches stories are common in Eastleigh.

With as many as 260,000 inhabitants from nearly a dozen countries, the first refugees in the early 1990s came largely from Mogadishu’s merchant class. They stayed in hotels, hiding goods under their beds at night and bringing them out each morning to sell in the street.

They formed “ayuuto” cooperatives, based largely on trust, that pooled money wired from relatives in the West to invest in property.

“Someone would send all their savings, $10,000, $20,000, $30,000, back to friends in Eastleigh,” says Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, secretary-general of the Eastleigh Business Community. “Somalis just naturally trust each other.”

'The importance of trust'

“Trust” is a word that carries special weight among Eastleigh’s Somalis. They are well aware that fighting between clans and sub-clans destroyed their home country, and the Kenyan diaspora is keen to avoid such division.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of trust,” Mr. Hassan says, underscoring the point by leaving two smart phones on a crowded restaurant table when he goes to wash his hands. “We learned a lesson in Somalia and came together. We had to.”

With the “ayuuto” ethic – and deals for low shipping rates struck in the war’s early years – Somali merchants transformed Eastleigh’s hotels into towering malls that sold goods at cheap prices.

Hassan estimates Eastleigh pays $22.8 million in tax revenue each year to the city of Nairobi.

Cedric Barnes of the International Crisis Group estimates that Eastleigh annually delivers $780 million in foreign cash into Kenya’s exchequer.

'Fertile ground'

But as Eastleigh boomed, a parallel growth emerged. Business with the Arab Gulf brought increased investment from that region in fundamentalist madrasas, making the neighborhood “fertile ground for Somali radicalization and militancy,” says Kenyan security analyst Rasheed Abdy.

One spark came in October 2011, when Kenya’s military crossed into Somalia to fight Al Shabab – extremists linked to Al Qaeda.

Weeks later, bombings began, with Eastleigh at the epicenter.

Since then, dozens have died and hundreds have been maimed in explosions in and around Eastleigh, hitting mosques, churches, markets, buses, restaurants, and a police station.

Those in Eastleigh who speak out against Al Shabab live in fear.

“Every day I get threats,” says Burhan Iman, a Kenyan-born ethnic-Somali editor of a newspaper critical of extremism. “I open Facebook, SMS, e-mails. They say, ‘What you are doing is against Islam. You are corrupting our youth.’ ”

Even Eastleigh’s representative to Kenya’s parliament was a victim, his feet shredded by a grenade tossed as he exited a mosque.

Ironically, locals say the police are even worse. In a predictable pattern, police flock to Eastleigh after bombings and round up ethnic Somalis in mass sweeps.

Feeling the heat

There are credible allegations of forced entry, beatings, rape, and torture. But the real purpose of the roundups, locals and observers say, is for low-paid police officers to extort bribes from ethnic Somalis, a phenomenon extensively documented by journalists and human rights groups in recent years.

Police take ethnic Somalis’ identity papers and demand money – from $5 to $50 – as the price of their return. If one has no ID, or is a refugee, the price rises.

Locals joke that Somalis are ATMs for the police.

The mass arrests, which often take place with little evidence or intelligence, have landed few actual terror charges and no convictions in Eastleigh.

In March, the situation escalated further. In the months after four Al Shabab operatives killed 67 in the Westgate mall attacks, police and terrorists became locked in bloody tit-for-tat operations. President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed stronger action. With wide national support, he doubled down on Eastleigh “night operations” by ordering the ongoing Operation Usalama Watch.

For more than two months, hundreds of paramilitary police have deployed to Eastleigh, setting up roadblocks; raiding apartments; detaining thousands of men, women, and children; and overtaxing jails. Suspects have been taken to a soccer stadium with scarce access even by United Nations officials.

Fatima Ibrahim, a refugee and single mother of five, says police have entered her apartment twice at 3 a.m. threatening to send her to the camps if she didn’t pay them bribes.

“I was just so scared because they just appeared with guns,” she says, wrapped in a black and purple hijab. “They were searching for Al Shabab. I’m a woman. I can’t be Al Shabab.”

The mood in the neighborhood is grim, agrees Abdi, the Ethiopian shopkeeper. “Eastleigh has totally changed into a war zone,” he says. “They are there every night asking, ‘money, money, money.’ They came when we were at prayers and arrested seven guys....”

Police deny allegations of bribe taking and abuse, saying they have not received any official citizen complaints.

Critics say the operations may radicalize people in favor of Al Shabab, while real criminals bribe their way free.

Indeed, since the crackdown began, attacks have increased. A double bombing in a market near Eastleigh May 16 killed 12 people.

What Operation Usalama Watch has achieved, however, is the deportation of more than 1,000 foreigners from Nairobi. Since 2012, Kenya’s government has tried to remove all refugees from Nairobi, saying they harbor terrorists, but it was stymied by court rulings.

The operation has also sent more than 700 refugees to camps in the north, most against their will, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It worries that at-risk groups such as students, medical patients, and journalists and activists who have been threatened by Al Shabab, which has a stronger presence in the north, are among them.

Kenya has also flown hundreds of undocumented immigrants to Mogadishu and deported at least three registered refugees to Somalia, contravening a fundamental principle of international refugee law not to return people to the place they fled.

The hostile environment could be a sign that Kenya is becoming less willing to accommodate people fleeing war and famine.

Feeling the heat, many refugees and Somali-Kenyans have left Eastleigh on their own.

Returning to Eastleigh apartment buildings in late May, The Christian Science Monitor found empty flats while many remaining families were packing their belongings.

Many will go to other parts of Nairobi, but others will head back to Somalia or Uganda, which is perceived to be more welcoming to Somalis, taking with them their businesses and some of Eastleigh’s unique character.

Hawkers still clog Eastleigh’s roads, but buyers, fearing bombs and police, are few. In empty malls, shopkeepers doze by their merchandise or don’t even bother to show up. One man selling suits from Turkey, Italy, and China says sales are down 95 percent. “I used to be a big business center,” he says. “Now I come to waste time.”

Abdi, who says Eastleigh once felt like home, moved away last month. “After eight years, I was not expecting this from the government,” he says. “I don’t advise refugees to come here.”

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