Kenya’s seaside looks peaceful, but a war is being waged
A football field and a grove of mango trees lie between Bongwe and its neighbouring village. On one side live the family of 33-year-old Subira Mwangole, shot dead by gunmen while watching television with friends one evening in May. On the other live his alleged murderers.
The two villages, 30km south of the port city of Mombasa on Kenya’s coast, are almost identical: three-room houses with rusting tin or thatch roofs, a ramshackle primary school, a government office, a small mosque with white walls stained by rain, a crossroads where two tracks meet, a well, small plots of tall corn plants.
Yet, despite their placid appearances, the villages lie on the invisible frontline of a brutal, low-level, three-way war pitting security agencies against the Islamic extremist network al-Shabaab, and the militants against the local community. It is a war carried out by small groups of armed men who shoot first and ask few questions.
“We are very anxious, frightened. He knew he could die at any moment. We all know we could be next,” said Ibrahim, a former al-Shabaab fighter and a close relative of Mwangole.
There is a steady beat of violence. The extremists murder those they see as a threat. Local human rights groups say the police do the same thing. Both sets of killers know that the fear they provoke brings impunity.
Mwangole was particularly hated by al-Shabaab for his role in convincing veterans of the movement to take advantage of an amnesty offered by the Kenyan ministry of the interior last year. The shopkeeper and father of two was himself a defector from the group, which has waged an insurgency in Somalia since 2006 and has expanded across the porous border intoKenya.
Mwangole was shot in the head by a group of men dressed as policemen but identified by family members as local members of al-Shabaab. His death was swiftly followed by the murder, in similar circumstances, of three community leaders in Bongwe. All were involved in government “anti-radicalisation” schemes.
Hundreds have died at the hands of Islamic militants in Kenya in recent decades. A first wave of violence between 1998 and 2002 was directed by al-Qaida against foreign targets, including US embassies and Israeli tourists. It had ebbed by the middle of the last decade.
But radicalism was growing among Kenya’s Muslim minority, fuelled by a sense of marginalisation, extremist clerics, the impact of the US-led “war on terror” and a shift away from traditional moderate Islamic practices to more rigorous versions of the faith influenced by countries in the Gulf.
In 2013 gunmen from al-Shabaabstormed a shopping mall in Nairobi,Kenya’s capital, killing 67 people. Last year 148 people were shot dead at a university in Kenya’s north-east. Both attacks were launched from Somalia, where Kenyan troops are fighting the extremists as part of an African Union force, but focused attention on support networks within Kenya itself.
Investigators found that young men from villages such as Bongwe in Kwale county had been travelling to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab for over a decade. Authorities launched a major crackdown and, officials say, a comprehensive “anti-radicalisation” strategy. One element was the amnesty announced last year. By this spring, 70 al-Shabaab veterans – or returnees – had made a clean breast of their militant past to authorities, receiving an assurance that they would not be prosecuted in return.
According to local journalists and former al-Shabaab fighter Sami, who worked closely with Mwangole and was a friend, two amnestied returnees have since been killed, as have six other al-Shabaab veterans.
“We trusted the government. We thought we could live a better life, in peace, and put our past behind us,” Sami said.
The identity of the alleged killers of Mwangole and the three community leaders reveals how, despite the extremist rhetoric of “global jihad”, the conflict being fought out in Kwale is very intimate.
In interviews with the Observer, Mwangole’s relatives and friends blamed a band of a dozen young men from the neighbouring village for the murders in Bongwe. Most are in their 20s and only recently recruited to al-Shabaab. They include several relatives of the victims. Well before the four murders in May, the group had already made a series of threats to amnestied veterans, accusing them of treachery and spying for the government.
Sami, who returned from a stint in Somalia with al-Shabaab six years ago, said: “We went to the police. We identified those threatening us, but they did nothing. Sometimes I think they wanted Mwangole to be killed – that’s why they gave him no protection.”
In June, police detained 10 men for the killings, including three of those named by Mwangole’s relatives. They say they are confident they have now broken up the network. This has inspired little confidence in Bongwe, however, where the authorities are as feared as al-Shabaab. Campaigners claim systematic human rights abuses by the police, including 70 extrajudicial “executions” or disappearances in the past year alone in and around Mombasa.
Many such killings and disappearances involve former members of al-Shabaab, or individuals alleged to be extremists. At least three alleged members of al-Shabaab in Kwale have been shot dead by police in recent months.
One, named as Omar Hesbon Matheka, died on 4 June when he was “running while shooting at the police”, according to officials, who claimed a grenade had been found among the dead man’s possessions. Witnesses said Matheka was killed by officers while sitting in a rickshaw. His mother told local newspapers that the 24-year-old was looking for work.
“Terrorism is the worst form of human rights violation. We want to eradicate terrorism … [but] it seems that the [government] strategy is simply using firepower. There is nothing about community resilience, addressing underlying problems or rule of law,” said human rights activist Khaled.
Maalim Mohammed, the police commissioner of Mombasa, denied any human rights abuses by Kenyan security agencies. “These allegations are baseless, malicious and unfair,” he said. “Our constitution and laws are very clear and we always respect the process. You cannot use coercive means to win against terrorism. You need to win hearts and minds. We get a lot of information from the community.”
The police crackdown has had a significant impact – at least in the short term. Analysts say the al-Shabaab support network on the coast and elsewhere is much weaker than it was, and has been eradicated in Mombasa.
The British and US governments recently lifted travel warnings applied two years ago to almost all of Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline, giving the crucial tourist industry a much-needed boost. “We can assure all visitors that they will be entirely safe here on the coast of Kenya,” Mohammed said.
But there are still frequent cross-border incidents. Five policemen were recently killed by suspected al-Shabaab fighters near the border with Somalia. There is also continuing recruitment, according to villagers. Several Kwale county residents, who did not want to be named, added that some women are also attracted by the extremist ideology, and marry al-Shabaab veterans in the area.
Last weekend Bongwe and its neighbouring village were calm. Both were full of women wearing flowing robes. Young children, cows and chickens wandered between the trees. A dozen youths wearing old T-shirts played on the football pitch.
“I left one war behind me in Somalia when I returned,” said Ibrahim. “But now I am in the middle of another one.”