Early this month, I was discussing with some friends the possibility of their group helping sink boreholes in support of communities in Wajir and Garissa. They were white Britons. We were close to agreement but then their trustees in UK started to ask questions. “What is the security situation for two or three European people in these areas? Would they be safe? Have freedom of movement?”
To be absolutely honest, I was upset. Why should they be fearful? Local people here are exposed to danger all the time. People are dying of hunger and thirst because of the drought. Surely the most critical issue is to provide for their urgent needs.
I have just come back from visiting Wajir, Dadaab, Tana River and Garissa doing relief work with another English visitor. He confessed feeling nervous when by himself on the streets. It prompted me to cast my mind back to recall my years of experience in the region … 23 years and still counting. We had very bad windows of insecurity. At times I wondered if we would ever get through it. Travelling by bus we felt hemmed in, front and behind, with armed security personnel standing alongside just in case we were ambushed by bandits.
So maybe I was in denial about insecurity. I realized we have to reckon on the here and now coming of the dreaded Al-shabaab! Today it feels strange to travel in the vast region of Northern Kenya knowing that war on Al-shabaab positions at the border with Somalia raging. There are fears that militias have sympathizers on the loose in the region. They may want to retaliate if they lose strategic position. We are well advised to take security precautions.
Yet this has not erased the plight of the people here for want of food. How are the relief operations to be maintained in this context? I had dismissed the idea that security threat levels could again raise to those levels of the 90s. I waxed eloquent on how Lamu was far from Garissa. Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp was teeming with foreign aid workers who were not only protected by the Kenya police but had the support of the UN. In fact I questioned why fear in the face of opportunity to help hundreds of needy people.
So the letter from our British friends made little sense to me:
We have taken independent security advice about working in NE Kenya. We learned that this region is a large and difficult to police area. It is not just the threat from Somalia that is of concern to us, it is also the general level of policing and security in the area. We are a new charity and just building and developing our capability and presence in Kenya. We are not yet ready to venture to the furthest outposts in NE Kenya, but this may be something we do in the future by another means, so for now I must thank you for your support of our enquiry and request that we stay in touch…
To this I quickly responded:
I cannot fault you for reaching this decision which by all means was taken with weight and adequate consultation. Having lived here for the last 23 years I would not agree less with you about the difficulty of policing the region. We have seen waves of pressure going up and down and ‘may be’ it is very bad now. I may be like someone inside an African kitchen not noticing smoke. It is better to error in caution. ..
Had I known what we now know, I might have felt and responded differently. Barely three days after this exchange, we heard the unexpected. Two Spanish aid workers, both logistics officers with the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders), were seized Thursday 13th October by gunmen. It is believed they have been taken across the border into war-torn Somalia.
This is the third incident of foreigners being abducted in Kenya in just over a month. This abduction took place in Dadaab camp, my ‘safe heaven’. The border between Kenya and Somalia is long and porous and both refugees and fighters can cross with ease. This event confirmed what Kenyan authorities had on several occasions expressed; fears that Islamist extremists would infiltrate the Dadaab camps from Somalia, as the border lies barely 100 kilometres (60 miles) away.
The Kenyan boarder with Somalia has now been closed. The government has taken a military option. The Internal Security Minister George Saitoti, accusing Somali Islamist Al-Shabaab rebels of the attacks. Prof. Saitoti told reporters:
Our territorial integrity is threatened with serious security threats of terrorism, we cannot allow this to happen at all. It means we are now going to pursue the enemy, who are the Al Shabaab, to wherever they will be, even in their country.
The Al-shabaab has since denied being involved making the matter complex to any observer. But the fears of reprisals are real, since no one expects them to take this beating lying down.
Now the UN has temporarily suspended all non-lifesaving aid operations in Dadaab, the world’s biggest refugee camp, a UN spokeswoman has said:
With them the Aid agencies announced that, they were halting all but life-saving relief efforts in Dadaab, home to some 450,000 mainly Somali refugees fleeing drought, famine or war — as they reviewed security.
Jane Alice Okello, a senior legal protection officer with the UNHCR in Dadaab, told news reporters that the MSF’s decision to leave Dadaab “is very sad and will obviously have a huge impact on roll out of health services in the refugee camps.
Hundreds of staff have been confined to their offices, forcing the cancellation of services like education, counseling and the relocation of families until further notice, she added.
Will the war now mounted on the Al-shabaab stoke the embers of insecurity or bring it down? What if there retaliatory attacks, who would be the soft targets?
In this mêlée we [TSM], opt not to scale back, but continue our relief efforts in the region. We are today sending teams to Dadaab including counselors, to step up trauma counseling programme, besides giving food and training to the community leaders here. We have increased plans to provide water for people in Wajir which we deem as urgent for both long and short term. Food deliveries to many needing help will continue as before. We are taking all security precautions but invite you to pray that people in the region know peace and safety.
As we serve them may the Lord who alone makes safety possible shield us from harm.
The Rev. Canon Francis Omondi is International Director of Sheepfold Ministries (TSM)