This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Eastleigh, a bustling business district in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, is home to thousands of ethnic Somalis — both Kenyan citizens as well as refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia. Every time I visit Eastleigh, I want to come back for the colorful street scene, the outdoor cafes, the late night shisha bars, and heaping plates of rice and camel meat. But ever since Kenya invaded Somalia in 2011 to fight Al Shabaab militants, Eastleigh has become synonymous with terror.
Kenya’s government and its majority population have long viewed Somalis with suspicion. In recent years, there’s been a trend of underpaid police using anti-terror operations as an excuse to round up and extort innocent Somalis.
In the middle of March, there was another terror incident in Kenya. Gunmen shot up a church in the port city Mombasa, killing six people. Part of the government’s response was to order all refugees in Nairobi to report to refugee camps in the country’s north, apparently because refugees might harbor terrorists. There are over 500,000 Somali refugees in Kenya — mostly in the camps — but some 50,000 live in Nairobi too.
After the order, I visited Eastleigh to see the mood. My first stop was a community health clinic, where I met Dr. Abdulkadir Warsame. Dr. Warsame said he was shocked at the directive to send refugees to the camps, and people were nervous that the police would follow through. Already, many of his patients stopped showing up for appointments.
“People who need drugs are not here,” he said. “We have seen soldiers going around with their guns, so people are staying in their houses.”
Besides the fear of being sent away, Dr. Warsame said residents were bracing themselves to bribe the police. Corruption among Kenyan police is well known across the country, but residents of economically thriving Eastleigh bear a bigger brunt. Police often take IDs from ethnic Somalis — Kenyan citizens, refugees, or illegal aliens — and refuse to return them until money is paid. Dr. Warsame has seen patrol cars from as far as Loresho, a wealthy suburb on the other side of Nairobi, driving to Eastleigh for a cut of the cake.
“Eastleigh is the ATM of the police,” Dr. Warsame said.
Since the police are accustomed to taking bribes, real criminals can easily buy themselves out of trouble. That night, I linked up with “Hassan,” an undercover cop in who works in Eastleigh, as well as other parts of Nairobi.
Hassan is an ethnic Somali and an anti-terror hardliner. He picked me up at a restaurant and we drove to his latest stakeout, where he was trying to spot a terror suspect. We sat for hours chewing khat and peanuts and sipping Coke, waiting for the suspect to appear.
Hassan said his informers regularly feed him intelligence about activities in the apartment buildings we were watching, but despite reporting it to his superiors, police hadn’t taken action. Hassan blamed the culture of bribery.
“Getting intelligence [is] 100 percent,” he said. “The biggest challenge is corruption. If there is no corruption you could do your job."
“You investigate a case like a gun runner,” Hassan continued. “To me, it's a small case to report to my boss... Arrest the guy for two days, then he goes to court, pays the judge, he’s released. He’s [either] given ten years prison, or free for 10,000 shillings ($115)."
The problem goes beyond crooks, or even terrorists, walking free. It also endangers the lives of straight cops like him.
"He returns to the same place,” Hassan said. “And you’ve created an enemy. You can’t do your work. We lost a guy in Dadaab [refugee camp] — they had a ceremony for the family, a 21 gun salute — if I follow that case, I’ll be the next person.”
After a few hours, no one had shown up except for a car of teenagers smoking cigarettes and listening to Lil Wayne, so Hassan decided to do some more basic investigative work. He walked over to the teenage hipsters and they pounded fists.
“You smoke banghi?” he asked, referring to the local variant of weed. They did, and gave Hassan the number of their dealer.
“I’m not going for them,” he assured me after getting back in the car. “You go up and up until you get the big fish. Drugs, guns, and terror are all related.”
We drove back to the center of Eastleigh, down Second Avenue. Even late at night it was full of people, including a line of non-Somali prostitutes on one corner. A police officer pulled a Somali teenager by the wrist past the women and into an alley. Hassan said the boy will pay a bribe and be released soon, but the police won’t bother with the sex workers.
“The police will pass three or four [non-Somali] Kenyans but he will go straight to Kenyan Somalis,” he said.
On March 31, a few days after my visit with Hassan, three bombs, hurled at some restaurants in Eastleigh, killed six and injured dozens.
I went to the scene the day after. Holes in the concrete showed where the explosions occurred, peeled back metal and crumbled brick showed their force. There was shattered glass and blood.
The authorities blamed Al Shabaab or its sympathizers. But a few of the Somali locals, gathering at the scene the next day, quietly took a different view. “These small bombings must be a local business rivalry, or a gang,” they said, “Just please don’t blame us.”
Already, reports of operations against Somalis had trickled out. I wanted to see for myself. so I linked up with Mohamed Noor Ismail, the chairman of Eastleigh’s volunteer community police. Mohamed described his position as “in-between” police and the community. He helps tip off cops to criminals, but also advocates for wrongly arrested Somalis. He’s the sort of guy who knows everyone, and who loves introducing you to yet another person he knows in Eastleigh.
We headed to Pangani police station. Trucks of paramilitary police called GSU rumbled past the station, where dozens of women wrapped in dark shawls waited to see relatives locked up inside. Every 20 minutes, police brought a fresh batch of detainees.
One distraught woman poked her head through our car window. She said she’d been waiting to see her son since 2PM. “If I pay 30,000 shillings ($345) he is going to be released,” she said, with tears on her face. “But they’ll just arrest him tomorrow. What’s the point?”
And 30,000 shillings is a hefty bribe, but Mohamed said — with complete seriousness — that police accept wire transfers from relatives abroad. “They’ll even give you their phone to call your family,” he told me.
Mohamed’s phone rang constantly as people called him for help. In other days, he might be able to get their relatives out, but not during an operation like this. He wouldn’t even get out of the car, let alone step into a police station. “They have something called ‘obstruction of justice,'” he said, his voice trailing off.
Soon the cells filled up, and the police began loading detainees onto trucks to take elsewhere. Seeing some of their relatives, the waiting women rushed the gate, but police chased them away with sticks.
Nearing midnight, we left Pangani station. We went through three police checkpoints in two blocks, mostly manned by new recruits carrying truncheons instead of guns. We could smell the booze on their breath when they stuck their heads and flashlights into the car to check our IDs.
Unlike my last visit, Second Avenue was empty except for the police. Even the prostitutes’ corner was deserted. The only Somalis around were pulled into police vans by their shirt collars.
Mohamed shook his head seeing his neighborhood like that. “This is collective punishment,” he said. “Just because they look like Somalis. It’s mob justice.”
The operations escalated throughout the week. Police began carrying out daytime raids. I returned with Mohamed and we went to Dr. Warsame’s clinic.
Abdullahi, an 18-year-old refugee from Somalia, sat in the open-air waiting room. He said police entered his girlfriend’s home earlier in the week, taking her and her two sisters to jail. The family was trying to raise enough money to pay her way out.
Adullahi said he’d been arrested six times since 2011, despite his papers being in order. Each time he bought his freedom for 5,000 shillings, or about $55. He won’t leave his house after 6PM for fear of cops.
“They say all Somalis are terrorists,” he says. “They don’t believe in refugees. Even if you have a mandate [the UN-issued document that allows refugees to stay in Nairobi], they don’t respect it.”
At around 2PM, Mohamed got a call that police were raiding an apartment building. We drove over, passing two checkpoints where truckloads of GSU fanned out into the streets.
Police streamed up and down the building’s stairwells. They’d been there the day before, but apparently hadn’t finished their work. Seeing our press badges and cameras, they quickly left, slipping IDs back to their rightful owners. One woman named Ubah Bile Omar who had been arguing with an officer didn’t take comfort though. “As soon as you leave they’ll be back,” she said.
Evidence of mistreatment was everywhere. People flooded onto the stairwell to tell us their stories. We saw big, dusty bootprints on doors and splintered door frames. In one room, 18-year-old Yasmin pulled aside her long orange headscarf to reveal a massive purple bruise on her shoulder. The police did it, she said, when they tried to arrest her.
On the top floor, a 20-year-old Kenyan citizen named Farhiya Mohamed Ibrahim said police smashed through the heavy metal lock on her front door with the butts of their gun. She said she was afraid to open when they knocked, because her husband wasn't home to protect her. Kenyan police have been accused by Human Rights Watch of raping lone Somali women during previous operations.
“They broke down the door,” Farhiya told me. “They went through our pockets, they checked our bags, they searched everywhere in the home, they broke my makeup kit. Then they see my documents are genuine and they say, ‘Why are you fearing us?'”
Corruption isn’t unique to Nairobi, and it’s not hard to get a fake ID after crossing the porous Somali border, so it’s understandable that police want to make sure Kenyan IDs are legit. But why did an anti-terror crackdown morph into a sweep for illegal aliens?
“We’re people who all ran away from Al Shabaab,” says Omar, a refugee from Mogadishu. “All of us [in this building] know each other. We wouldn’t allow Al Shabaab here. We’d report it.”
There’s no telling when the operation will end. Kenya’s interior minister said they would continue until Nairobi is “clean.”
So far, over 4,000 people have been arrested nationwide and 82 have been deported to Somalia. But police haven’t announced any charges in connection with the three explosions that killed six people on March 31.