By Francis Omondi
Clouds of fear brood over Garissa in the northeastern province of Kenya. For residents of Garissa the reality of terrorism struck home on the night of Nov. 24. My colleague at the clinic thought it was a tire blowout. Suddenly John rushed in with blood covering his face. He did not know that he was bleeding. We rushed him to the provincial general hospital.
Then the details emerged. John was one of the victims of a grenade attack on Chege’s Café. Simultaneous explosions happened at 7 p.m., one at Chege’s, about 100 meters from our clinic, and the other at a shopping center on nearby Ngamia Road, where six people died.
This was the second night of grenade attacks on Garissa in one month. On Nov. 5 a suspected terrorist threw a grenade into the compound of the East Africa Pentecostal Church, killing an 8-year-old girl and leaving three others seriously injured. Fear spreading through a community has several faces. We all knew that attempts by the government of Kenya to quell the activities of Islamic extremists in the Somali border area might trigger reprisals. Would this ghastly deed be the start of something often predicted, an all-out attempt to drive out the Christian minority?
Immediately the Kenyan government moved to diffuse the thought that Muslims were launching an allout attack on Christians. A government spokesman rightly blamed the attack on Al Shabaab sympathizers. Muslim leaders in Garissa acted swiftly, both condemning the attacks and joining Christians at the burial of a victim.
The attack signaled a change of direction by the perpetrators. Until Nov. 5 police and government officials were key targets. A day after Kenyan troops entered Somalia a senior Criminal Investigation Department officer was shot at. The action led to arrests of suspected Al Shabaab terrorists. In what is thought to be a retaliatory attack, his car was shot at in the nearby town of Wajir, seriously injuring a passenger in the vehicle.
This was not the only incident. The Standard newspaper of Nairobi reported an attack in which “a group of about 30 suspected Al Shabaab militants ambushed a security base manned by the Rural Border Patrol Unit of the Administration Police near Elwak in Mandera at night but were repulsed by the security officers. The armed militiamen reportedly sneaked into the country but were confronted by the alert soldiers who were later backed by the military to pursue the militants into Somalia.”
The classic tactics of terrorism are being applied here. The perpetrators seek to create fear by hitting hard at the civilian population. They hope this will force the government to withdraw forces that are now inside Somalia trying to dismantle Al Shabaab positions.
At the Dadaab Refugee Camp a few weeks ago, thousands of Somali refugees held a demonstration to condemn Al Shabaab. They carried banners, waved twigs and chanted slogans. These refugees from three camps, Hagadera, Ifo and Dagahaley, said they supported Kenya’s military offensive against Al Shabaab. Kussow Abdi Nuni, leader of Hagadera Refugee Camp, said a consortium of refugees organized the demonstration. “We support the Kenya government in their operation to wipe out Al Shabaab from Somalia. Kenya has hosted us for more than two decades and we want to go back and build our country now,” Nuni said. He added that recent grenade attacks in different parts of Kenya are a clear testimony that the militants can strike anywhere.
The message is clear. We are no longer safe anywhere, especially those of us working to feed people facing starvation. The easiest option would be, like many workers from Western non-governmental organizations, to flee the situation.
What will allow us to know peace in this region and country? Will the presence of police or military forces protect us against the terrorists? Will their removal bring us that peace?
God’s peace can be our peace even in times of cruelty and terror. This is the peace the world cannot give or take away.
The Rev. Canon Francis Omondi is international director of TSM, a Kenyan-led mission providing education, medical care and emergency relief in the arid northeast of Kenya near the Somali border. He writes about his work at Hunger in the Horn.