Grenade attacks foster air of fear in Nairobi

Posted on October 25, 2011

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*This article appeared at newstatesman.com on 26 October 2011

A matatu stage is one of the busiest, loudest, most confusing places a stranger to Nairobi can find themselves. Thousands of locals jostle for position in the rush to navigate the city’s notorious rush hour. Endless, numberless vehicles that all look the same pull up in their dozens, young men leaning out of open doors touting for passengers, shouting “Kiambu, Kiambu” or “Githunguri, mzungu?” to the point that catching a lift out of town is amongst the most complicated thing anyone not versed in the daily mayhem of Kenya’s capital can attempt.

Shortly after 8pm last night (24 October), was a different story. The usually crowded Kaka terminus between Race Course and Landies Roads in central Nairobi, where many of my work colleagues change matatus twice a day on their way to and from work, was almost eerily quiet. Camouflaged soldiers lingered, hands on guns, talking quietly amongst themselves. Some Red Cross workers were clearly taking advantage of the chance to catch up, loudly laughing together in a group. Policemen slowly strolled the deserted street, flashing torches into alleyways for probably the umpteenth time that night. A few metres away, security men were redirecting traffic and preventing interested bystanders from entering the terminus-cum-crime scene.

One woman, who appeared to have a little more alcohol inside her than was perhaps clever, managed to penetrate the security, seemingly for little other reason than that the road offered a shortcut to her destination. She walked slowly through the shadows, stumbling a little, before halting as a policemen hollered at her and shone his torch in her face before shining the light on the ground at her feet. Both the lady and those in the vicinity followed the trail of light, which shone on a wide puddle of blood that, in the darkness, resembled little more than collected rainfall or spilt oil. The woman, unperturbed by the red mess that was splashed across her white shoes, staggered away into the night, leaving those of who had seen to observe the only discernible evidence that something terrible had happened at this quite peaceful scene not long earlier.

It was the second grenade attack in Nairobi in less than 24 hours, but the first fatal one. Eyewitness reports described how the grenade was thrown at a full matatu, but bounced off and landed in a crowd of people attempting to enter various vehicles. The grenade exploded as it hit the ground, killing one and injuring thirteen others, mostly below the waist. Conflicting reports have emerged as to the condition of those injured, but at least one man was rushed to theatre in a “critical” condition. With the tarpaulin sheets that serve as a makeshift wall almost totally undamaged, it seems that commuters took the full brunt of the blast. A friend described the immediate aftermath as a “crazy scene”.  It came barely 18 hours after a man hurled a grenade into a busy Mwaura’s nightclub on Mfangano Lane, injuring 14 people.

It is only three weeks since I took a drink in Mwaura’s, a very local venue visited by working class Kenyans on account of its cheap alcohol. The place was little more than a dive, a rundown crevasse in the wall where ordinary Kenyans drank and socialised. And that is the theme of these attacks thus far. Though the US embassy warned three days ago that they had “credible” information that bars and shopping malls frequented by westerners could be targeted, the sites of the two grenades have been soft targets used by local Kenyans on a regular basis. While security has been stepped up in the more upmarket venues – security measures were intense for those entering the expensive Sankara hotel in Sarit last night, while armed guards have appeared at Village Market and Westgate shopping malls – it is almost impossible to adequately police local bars and busy matatu stages. While concerned expatriates have been able to hide behind metal detectors and armed security guards, local people going about their local business now fear for their lives.

More than 20 are injured and 1 dead

This effect was to be seen this morning, with fewer than normal making it into work on time or at all, presumably fearing a repeat performance. Nairobi is on high alert, and the fear is there for all to see. In the wake of Kenyan troops entering neighbouring Somalia last week, a military plane was spotted in the skies of Nairobi drawing a banner declaring: “Defending Kenya”. But what has become clear is that, though the police and Red Cross were on the scene with extraordinary speed last night, there is no protecting Nairobi’s people when the perpetrators of this terror seem content to strike anywhere at any time. Shopping malls and high-end bars and restaurants can up their security, but preventing Nairobi’s bustling streets, markets and transport hubs from grenade attacks is a job bordering on the impossible. These are soft targets, and the relatively small period of time between attacks suggest those responsible are going for maximum impact.

Who is responsible is still open for debate. Al Shabaab, the Islamist terror organisation that Kenyan troops are seeking in Somalia, have not claimed responsibility as they have for previous attacks in the region, but the timing of the attacks makes it inevitable that they or their sympathisers are the prime suspects. In the wake of last week’s invasion, Al Shabaab leaders promised that Nairobi would experience real terror if Kenyan troops did not leave Somalia. Kenya Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere, who was on the scene last night, was quick to reiterate his comments from after the first attack that there was no evidence to suggest the group were involved. If it is Al Shabaab, the attacks have come in an unexpected form. As yet, Nairobi’s western population remains relatively unaffected; Nairobi’s tall buildings are still standing. Yet local people now live in fear that their journey home from work, their sociable drink in a bar, their trip to the local market, will be the next target for a lone terrorist and a grenade. More likely is that it is Kenya-based Somali sympathisers with Al Shabaab who are behind the attacks, a subject that was the topic of much whispered conversation yesterday evening.

Nairobi has a large Somali population, many of them students, and the district of Eastleigh, close to the Central Business District, has become an area largely populated by Nairobi’s non-Kenyan population. Though Al Shabaab have not claimed responsibility, it is entirely possible that these attacks have been carried out by sympathisers based locally, acting in accord with the public statements of the group’s leaders rather than from direct orders. It is tempting to see the group as a very organised entity, when in reality the likelihood is that its ideology is more pervasive amongst parts of Kenya’s population than its lines of communication are. Yet it would be foolish to analyse these two incidents as isolated ones. In the week after Kenya invaded Somalia, it is inevitable that these attacks be viewed as part of an Islamist backlash against the border crossings. A source told us last night that though Eastleigh is awash with guns and bullets, grenades are not so common and would have had to be transported from North Eastern, suggesting that these attacks have more concerted planning behind them. These are not simply lone crazies throwing grenades.

Iteere: "Be vigilant"

Tensions in Eastleigh have predictably grown. Nicknamed “little Mogadishu” because of its high population of Somali residents, it is now braced for a crackdown that will affect innocent Somalis as well as those with Al Shabaab connections. “We wake up prepared for a day and a time like this,” said one resident. “When world events will shape the daily livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands living in this little corner of Nairobi.” Paranoia is the inevitable result of incidents such as this, with all Somalis coming under suspicion. Comments on the Daily Nation’s report of the blasts included vitriol such as “It is very difficult to trust a Somali” and “This is the time the non-Kenyan Somalis be removed from Kenya”. The following was posted underneath NTV’s coverage of the attack on its YouTube page by an unidentified viewer: “This one now makes me hate Somalis with more passion! What kind of shitty people are these?! I just hope all this bastards could be shipped out of our Country or even Africa!”. Reports of police patrolling the area asking for identity cards have already surfaced. Arrests have occurred in Malindi and Nakuru. It is probable that the difficulties of properly identifying Al Shabaab sympathisers will foster an atmosphere of resentment against Somali residents in Kenya.

Nairobi today lives in fear. Our fixer last night answered a call from his wife, pleading for him to return home immediately. My taxi driver home told me that “people are scared, and people will be scared to go out in darkness”. Iteere pledged that the police were doing all they could to protect the population, and asked Kenyans to be vigilant and to try and avoid busy areas. Security has been stepped up across the city, but nobody can escape the feeling that a repeat of yesterday’s violence is possible anywhere, at any time.

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