Watching Nairobi’s Westgate mall crisis unfold from afar brings it all back: the under-the-surface jitters of something horrible to come, the edge-of-consciousness knowledge that no one is safe anywhere.
That’s what it was like living in Kenya, especially after “Operation Linda Nchi,” the code name for an internationally-backed military effort in which Kenyan troops entered Somalia in October, 2011, to help Somali forces ward off al-Shabab advances.
As a freelance reporter based in Nairobi from 2000 to 2012, I filed a lot of stories about this “new” group committing horrific atrocities in Somalia against ordinary Somalis.
Report after report from colleagues in the field, human rights organizations, UN agencies, Somali civil society groups and many others painted a damning picture of al-Shabab’s activities: Kidnapping and forcibly recruiting children to become fighters; forcing girls and young women to “marry” fighters; stoning to death women accused of being adulterous; chopping off the limbs of those suspected to have stolen; and many other atrocities.
Al-Shabab claimed to be fighting against Western interference as it sought to build an Islamic Somalia. In mid-2011, when famine was officially declared in parts of Somalia, al-Shabab went so far as accusing foreign aid workers of being Western spies and blocked desperately-needed aid from reaching starving and sick populations in the areas they controlled.
In early August 2011, then-UNHCR Representative for Somalia, Bruno Geddo, was quoted as saying that al-Shabab set up roadblocks preventing people from fleeing famine areas, primarily to ensure that there would be a pool of potential fighters for military recruitment. Despite al-Shabab’s best efforts, Somali refugees were showing up at Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp at a rate of 1,000 a day.
The vast influx of refugees was a major concern for the Kenyan government, but what tipped Kenya over the edge was the kidnappings in September and October 2011 of British and French tourists and Spanish aid workers.
Tourism is Kenya’s soft underbelly. A large part of Kenya’s economy relies on visitors from all over the world coming to what they consider to be a safe and beautiful country. Hence the deployment of Operation Linda Nchi, which was immediately followed by threats of retaliation from al-Shabab – which didn’t take long.
Less than a week later, 13 people were injured after a grenade was thrown into a Nairobi bar. The next night, as crowds waited in a busy bus station to go home, someone drove up and tried to lob a grenade into a packed bus, but missed; one person was killed and at least eight were injured.
A few days later, al-Shabab commander Sheikh Muktar Robow told a rally in Somalia’s capital: “We need a huge blow against Kenya. Hand grenades hurled can harm them but we want huge blasts… Kenya, you have started the war and so you have to face the consequences.”
The following week, a grenade killed two people on Kenya’s much-visited Indian Ocean coast. In March, 2012, at least six people were killed and scores of others injured in yet another grenade attack in a busy bus station. More grenade attacks followed.
It was all starting to take a toll on Kenyans. I felt it on a visceral level. Living in a city dubbed “Nairobbery,” I had Kenyan and expatriate friends who experienced the traumas of car-jackings and armed robberies. I was used to looking over my shoulder.
Nairobi was becoming a different place. Metal detectors appeared everywhere. Security guards inspected bags continually. A few times when I took the bus home at night, the police would stop us and we’d all have to file off the bus while they looked for weapons or perhaps grenades.
A Kenyan friend confessed to me that he would not board a bus – or he would disembark – if there was a Somali passenger. He was that afraid.
Once, when I was being searched as I waited to go into church, I accidently dropped a bag that contained a glass bowl that shattered. Some people screamed and ducked for cover. On another occasion, when a bag of explosives went off in a shop very close to my office, I started wondering if and when it would be my turn next.
Small-scale events that frighten, injure and kill ordinary Kenyans – and atrocities suffered by millions of Somalis at the hands of al-Shabab – don’t generally make headlines. The shocking – but not surprising – catastrophe at Westgate mall unites everyone – rich and poor, Africans and expatriates – in the reality that we are all vulnerable to those who use terror to get their way.
Cathy Majtenyi is a research communications officer at Brock University in St. Catharines. She is writing a book on her time as a freelance journalist in East Africa from 2000-12.