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Pain of families whose sons joined Al Shabaab

Friday, February 08, 2013
By Dann Okoth

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Eastleigh’s labyrinth of numerous high-rise buildings bustle with heightened activity as Kenya’s ‘Little Mogadishu’ draws thousands of consumers searching for a bargain.

The roar of traffic and chants by roadside hawkers belie the sense of unease in the area. It was not too long ago that riots raged in these streets over insecurity. Located in the eastern part of Nairobi, Eastleigh estate has a reputation as one the more dangerous places in the city, thanks to the influx of refugees from Somalia, among them an armed and radical element.

Their role in several terror attacks, including the bombing of a Kariobangi-bound matatu last November, has soured relations between Eastleigh residents and their neighbours. In some parts there is palpable fear and unease.

We are here in search of the growing community of widows and bereft families left behind by young men leaving the country to join the Al Shabaab movement at the height of the Somalia conflict. Their numbers can be found in parts of Nairobi like Majengo and Eastleigh, as well as in towns as far as Mombasa and Garissa. An estimated 5,000 young Kenyans left between 2008 and 2010 to join forces with the Al Shabaab as it waged a protracted war against the Somali Transitional Government. Most cannot be accounted for despite a Government amnesty last year for them to return home. Many are believed to be dead, with Islamic religious leaders last year speaking out against radical recruiters as the toll on the community became clear.

Most families opt to suffer in silence for fear of being targeted by Al Shabaab cells or possible Government reprisals if they speak out about their missing kin. A young woman identified only as Aisha is part of this group weighed down by anxiety, desperation and fear over the fate of their loved ones.

“I suspect my husband joined the Al Shabaab alongside the young men who left from Eastleigh. I don’t know what might have happened to him but I am desperate to find out,” says Aisha, a mother of two.

Living in squalor

“I am not comfortable discussing this matter, because I don’t know what might happen to me and my children.” Her husband of two years, Muhammad, left one evening in 2009 to look for work in Garissa never to return.

“For a while we communicated, but at some point in early 2010 his mobile phone line went dead. I have not heard from him since. It is not like him to disappear into thin air, I suspect something bad happened,” Aisha says. As she leads us to her flat, in an old building off Eastleigh Fifth Avenue next to a pond of raw sewage, the 23-year-old looks around to make sure nobody is following. The flight of stairs to her sixth floor home illustrates the squalor she is forced to live in.

Human waste and dead rats make movement a precarious exercise. In Aisha’s dimly lit one-roomed apartment a single bed rests on the far wall, on it a piece of dirty linen. There is an old carpet on the floor that serves as seating for visitors. A suitcase is placed against the wall at one corner of the room and on the opposite corner, a kerosene stove with a rusty cooking pan on it — her youngest daughter Ido sleeps peacefully on the bed as if unperturbed by the squalid surroundings.

The family used to reside in a two-bed-roomed flat before her husband left. But now she is only able to remain in the single room for Sh3,500 a month, thanks to donations from relatives, friends and a local Mosque. “I do odd jobs and sell groceries but the money often is too little for house rent,” Aisha says. “Most of the time it is hardly enough to afford three meals a day and the baby is forced to go without milk.”

Even in the safety of her own home Aisha is reluctant to discuss the circumstances that might have led to her husband leaving home. It had been difficult to convince her to talk in the first place — and the interview is difficult going forward as she stalls in her narrative and keeps flipping the door curtains to see if anyone is approaching.

The same apprehension envelops young Musa after his cousin Abdi left in 2010 for Baidoa in South Western Somalia-never to return. “Initially he informed us it was a business trip to collect and sell charcoal in Garissa, but he has not returned,” Musa narrates from his home in Kayole. He says they are traumatised — haunted by the fact they may never know where Abdi went and what might have happened to him. “We would be at ease if we knew what happened to him even if he was dead,” he says.

Across in Garissa County, a nine-month search for ten young men who left the region between 2008 and 2009 to join Al Shabaab has ended in frustration, desperation and tears. Abdi Omar Bara, Salah Ismail, Mohammed Abdi, Abdi Omar, Siad Sheik, Farhan Osman, Hussein Abdulahi, Farah Ismail, Muhammud Muhammed and Ibrahim Omar, aged between 20 and 25 from Garissa and Bura-East left the country for Somalia and are yet to return. Consequently, the community led by Garissa and Tana People’s Settlement Network (Garitana) buoyed by the Government amnesty launched a nine-month search to locate and return the lads home without success. “We used our contacts in Somalia, including placing advertisements on BBC-Somalia and contacting International Committee of the Red Cross for help but in vain,” says Mr Abdi Hajir Sugal, Gritana chairman.

For a while, Sugal was able to communicate with one of the young men, Mr Salah Ismail, through his mobile phone but the communication was cut off sometime in 2012 at the height of the war in Somalia.

“Strangely, he sounded exuberant whenever we spoke on phone, even describing gory details of how they were made to take oaths of allegiance by washing their faces in strange looking water and swearing to wage the Jihadist war, but suddenly his line went dead last year,” Sugal recalls. When asked whether they enlisted Government help to help trace the whereabouts of the young men Sugal responds: “Everyone is afraid, including the parents. They think if they approached the provincial administration or any other Government agency they will be arrested for being Al Shabaab.” The Government maintained the amnesty extended to Kenyans who had fled to Somali to join Al Shabaab has not expired.

“The amnesty issued by Internal Security Permanent Secretary in September last year had no expiry date,” says Government Spokesman Muthui Kariuki. “The Government is pragmatic about the whole issue and would not put timelines on such sensitive matters. Nobody should fear that any kind of punishment will be meted against them if they disassociate themselves with the militants and that any families will be victimised by the State if they come out to seek Government help to help them trace their kin in Somalia,” he adds.

ICRC says it can only help those who approach it to trace their kin, adding no family from Kenya has sought their help. “Our global mandate is to provide humanitarian help for people affected by conflict and armed violence and promote the laws that protect victims of war,” says Ms Anne Kilimo ICRC head of communications in Nairobi. She says the organisations also have forensic experts in various regions to help in identifying dead relatives especially in war situations for humanitarian reasons. “In some communities, it would be impossible for the next of kin to inherit the estate until or unless it is established the person is dead,” she says. “In the Al Shabaab situation it could be more complicated because the persons in question, if they are still alive, might not want to be identified and re-united with families.”


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