Kenya's Incursion in Somalia

Refugees at the Dadaab camp close to the border between Kenya and Somalia.

Kenyan troops invaded Somalia on Oct. 16. The official version given by Nairobi was that it began chasing al-Shabaab, the powerful Somali Muslim organization that controls large parts of southern Somalia and is allegedly linked to al Qaeda. The Western-backed Somali government first protested the invasion, then changed its rhetoric and agreed to work with the Kenyan troops.

Considering that Kenyan troops undertook a major military excursion to a neighboring country, Kenyan media showed extraordinary discipline and restraint: There has been no criticism of the action. Journalists from two major newspapers—The Nation and The Standard—have been since the beginning embedded with the troops, firing zealous and patriotic dispatches. Independent media has had no access to the battlefield.

The official reasons given for the invasion were the kidnapping of several Western tourists from the coast, and the disappearance of foreign and local Doctors without Borders staff from the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somali border in October.

Al-Shabaab strongly denied any responsibility for the kidnapping, and some members of international organizations based at the Dadaab camp (who want to remain anonymous) said that there is no proof that foreign groups were involved in the kidnapping. One said, "There are rumors that Kenyans performed the kidnapping of relief workers to justify their military action. A large military invasion is always planned long in advance, especially if performed by a poor country with bad infrastructure. Kenya invaded Somalia only a few days after the alleged kidnapping of relief workers. It is simply not adding up."

All over Nairobi there is talk that the West in general and the United States in particular are behind the invasion, but nobody is willing to go on the record. Kenyan elites are one way or the other linked to and dependent on U.S. and European policymakers: through funding, employment, training or various travel perks. Nobody wants to risk having his or her name added to the visa black list.

And so there is silence. Once-outspoken voices like those of the head of the Social Democratic Party of Kenya, Mwandawiro Mghanga, are surprisingly muted these days, although Mghanga confirmed that "Kenya's open collaboration with Israel complicates matters."

There is hardly any criticism even as the evidence is mounting that the Kenyan invasion is having a terrible effect on civilian population in Somalia. As a result of the war, dire situations in refugee camps in Kenya have deteriorated even further, and humanitarian crises now seem inevitable. There has been an outbreak of cholera in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp on Earth with close to 500,000 people.

Refugee camps in Northern Kenya, mostly swollen with Somali refugees escaping sporadic fighting and insecurity in their native land, are restless, as are Somali neighborhoods in Nairobi. Kenya is a country with a long history of racially motivated violence, the worst recent example being gruesome post-election violence in 2008 that left thousands dead. Anti-Somali feelings in Kenya are on the rise. Since the beginning of the latest conflict, threats are being uttered by government officials and by ordinary citizens.

One of the threats heard in whispers is to "clean up" Eastleigh, a neighborhood predominantly inhabited by Somali immigrants and often nicknamed Little Mogadishu. Unlike refugees in the camps, immigrants in Eastleigh are "legal" in Kenya. These are often people with money, many of whom managed to bribe Kenyan officials and as a result have been issued either Kenyan passports or permanent residence permits.

Dadaab remains the biggest problem, although Kakuma, in the Turkana district, is also experiencing overcrowding. While working there recently, I was repeatedly reminded that people there already lost their hope that one day they could go back or be allowed to move forward. War in Somalia prevents them from returning, while Kenya does not give them opportunities to resettle on its territory, or even to travel outside the camps. There are hundreds of thousands of young men and women in the camps who have never seen the mountains, meadows, ocean or a city. They were born in a camp, brought up there and probably will never leave.

Over the last two weeks, international news agencies carried reports that Ethiopia, another staunch Western ally, sent troops to Somalia to back the Kenyan invasion there. The last time Ethiopia invaded Somalia, there was bloodshed and an increase of support for al-Shabaab.

After the invasion, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga visited Israel, which offered to secure Kenya's borders. BBC reported that "Kenya got the backing of Israel to 'rid its territory of fundamentalist elements' during Prime Minister Raila Odinga's visit to the country." Israel has regularly played a destabilizing role in East Africa, particularly in Uganda but in other countries as well.

Kenyan tactics have become extreme. Thousands of families in Nairobi, both Kenyan and Somali, have fallen victim to what officials often describe as a Kenyan war on terror. In recent weeks, police and army, accompanied by heavy equipment that consists of excavators and bulldozers, invaded slums and legal multi-story buildings. At night, people cry and scream, dragged from their dwellings, often in the rain. Workers then begin immediate demolition of their houses. The official explanation is that houses, slums and apartment buildings sit on the approach path of military planes.

Visiting one of the demolition sites in Eastleigh I was told by Gilbert, a former resident, "There is no discussion and no negotiation. That's how it is in Kenya. They call it democracy, but in fact government can come and throw us to the street. If we protest, they just shoot to kill." As he spoke, police and army were making their presence felt, holding machine guns while their dogs thrashed on their leashes.

Whatever the truth is behind the adventure in Somalia, Kenya appears to be playing an extremely dangerous game, endangering millions of human lives, for the benefit of the few members of its elites.

Andre Vltchek filed this report from Dadaab refugee camp and from Nairobi, Kenya. Mr. Vltchek is a writer, filmmaker and investigative journalist. His website is http://andrevltchek.weebly.com. His latest non-fiction book "Oceania" shows the impact of Western neo-colonialism on tiny island nations in the South Pacific. He is presently working on a documentary film on Rwanda and the Congo as well as a political novel called "Winter Journey." He can be reached at andre-wcn@usa.net.

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