BY DANIEL WESANGULA
On the night of July 11, Farida Ali looked around her house in Port Reitz, Mombasa and realised she needed a refill. Her reserves of fresh water were running low.
Her son, Fahad, had just returned home with a company pick-up. Farida, like any mother would do, sent her son out for a quick errand. Together, they loaded empty jerry-cans onto the pick-up. Unknown to her, in a few hours, water would be the least of her worries.
As Fahad reversed out of the compound, two twin boys, aged four, ran towards him. They were his nephews. The allure of an evening adventure with their uncle too strong to resist, the two hopped into the vehicle and the three drove off into the traffic chaos of Mombasa, towards Hamisi.
As they approached Changamwe, they heard gunshots from one direction. “They say they tried to turn and drive to the opposite direction,” says a grieving grandmother. But unknowingly they were heading straight into more gunfire.
A few minutes to 9pm, a call came through to Farida’s cell phone. “It was my son Fahad. He called to say they had been shot at. He said he was injured and so was his nephew Ali. I wanted to run out of my house towards them. But he told me not to. He said things had become bad and it was better for me to stay home,” says a tearful Farida.
When all calmed down, the eerie sound of an ambulance was forced upon the city. And with the burst of gunfire came the murder of a prominent businessman. Fahad lay injured in the driver’s seat. Walid, one of the twins, was soaked in blood. His twin brother Ali was next to him wreathing in pain, his left leg a mess of blood, flesh and bones. Both man and child had been hit by the same bullet with devastating effect.
Fahad, 31, thought fast. His older brother lived nearby. At the heat of the moment, he drove to his brother’s house, where, again, they found dozens of police officers.
“They ordered them out of the vehicle,” Farida says.
At the pull of a trigger, another child’s life had been turned on its head. The two were rushed to hospital but the bullet had done more than collateral damage and Ali’s leg had to be amputated just below the knee.
Of the three, only two were checked into Bomu Hospital. Walid’s night took a different turn. He was not physically injured. But by some strange coincidence, he was separated from his relatives at the scene and was taken by security officers to Changamwe police station. He remained there for three and a half hours.
“How can one even look you in the eye and try to explain away this injustice? My son was shot by the police. My grandchild lost a leg to a policeman’s bullet. The other one is taken away to a police station. They need to tell me if he was a terrorist and what possible evil a four-year-old can commit,” Farida charges.
For the duration of Kenya’s war on terror, human rights activists have been against blanket condemnation of whole communities. More often than not, children are caught up in the deadly wars pitting the State against terror suspects, a war whose result continues to be too close to call. The line between victory and loss nearly impossible to see with the naked eye.
“Such actions only help in putting whole communities into a tunnel with one exit leading towards one path,” Haki Africa Director Khalid Hussein told The Standard on Sunday. “Such actions win sympathy for the other side. We are actually recruiting for the terrorists through these assassinations and arrests of leaders and when they happen to one’s family, forgiveness from the aggrieved is nearly impossible.”
Days after the Changamwe shooting, normalcy remains a mirage in the Ali household. A few days ago, a senior police man came to check on Ali. He was sound asleep on his hospital bed but the gentleman decided to wait until the boy woke up and to probably chat him up a bit. When Ali opened his eyes and saw the man in uniform, he started screaming.
“Alikua anapiga kelele tu… akisema nyanya, nyanya! Muone huyu polisi amekuja kunipiga risasi tena (He just started screaming, calling me and saying the policeman had returned to shoot him again),” says Farida.
“Children continue to be the most vulnerable in conflict…the suffering they go through is immense. It is just that they have no avenue to express the trauma they have encountered in their young lives,” Hussein says.
Ali’s case is not an isolated one. To the layman, the gains made by Kenya’s war on terror may be minimal. To the technocrats, they may be immense. But what has become clear is that ordinary Kenyans with no perceptible link to terrorists regularly bear the cost of counter-terrorism.
On May 31, 2003, Ahmed Mohammed Surur was leaving a mosque in Mombasa after prayers. As Surur, a charcoal dealer at Bibi wa Saafi, made his way home, four men approached him. One put a gun to his head as the others forced him into a car.
They took him to a house and locked up. They beat him and threw him into the trunk of another car. After five hours of driving, he was taken out of the trunk and met by, what he has said in previous interviews, eight foreign intelligence agents. They told him they knew he was involved in the 2002 Kikambala bombings, and they put a confession in front of him to sign. He refused to sign it. They then placed a bag over his head and moved him into another room, where he stayed for hours.
Later, they brought in a metal chair, attached cables, and bound his legs and torso to the chair. Again, they put the confession in front of him and instructed him to sign. Each time he refused, he was given an electric shock. The torture continued until he lost consciousness. After four days, he was dumped in Nairobi, somewhere on Mombasa road.
According to rights agency Amnesty International, the police refused to take a statement from him, and he received anonymous warnings not to tell his story.
In 2006, then Mvita MP and current Cabinet Secretary for Mining Najib Balala, presented Surur’s case in Parliament. Amason Kingi, then assistant minister in the Office of the President, replied to Balala’s question on Surur’s abduction and torture.
“Investigations were carried out and upon completion the State counsel advised there was no evidence to prove kidnapping or torture as alleged. Hence the file was closed,” Kingi is quoted in the Hansard of August 2, 2006.
Experts and leaders say Government’s inability to involve locals in its counter-terrorism war is alienating the State from the masses. “You cannot win a war if you lose the support of those you seek to protect. The masses need to be confident in the Government’s ability to protect them and to be honest with them in terms of its intentions. Animosity between the two can only lead to an escalation of an already tense situation,” security analyst and Egerton University lecturer Ngetich Bitok, said.
Hussein says even in instances of clear violation of rights and abuse and when all indications show the security forces were relying on erroneous intelligence, an acknowledgement of their mistake is never made. “Tangu mwanangu na mjukuu wangu wapigwe risasi, hakuna hata ombi la msamaha nimepokea kutoka kwa serikali. Tunangoja tu. (Since my son and grandson were shot by police, nobody from Government has apologised. We continue to wait),” says Farida.
Is she angry at the police for what happened to her family? She pauses as though in deep reflection then hits back: “Ingekua wewe unge hisi vipi? (If this were to happen to you, how would you have felt?” For Farida and her children, the global war on terror has been personalised to an infringement on their right to safety.