Several community leaders among the 463,000 mostly Somali residents of the world’s largest refugee complex have left the facility in eastern Kenya, fearing for their safety after the killing of two of their colleagues.
These deaths, and threats to other refugees, came after an agreement by refugee leaders to step up vigilance with patrols in Dadaab after roadside bombings. Police blamed the attacks on Al-Shabab, a Somali insurgent group, now being targeted by the Kenyan military in Somalia.
The police, one of whose officers was killed in the latest blast, on 19 December, believe Al-Shabab has established a presence in the complex. Some refugees told IRIN that police, during a robust response, had told them to hand over the “evil ones” living among them.
Police detained several people in two of Dadaab’s camps – Ifo and Hagadera - during the vigilance patrols.
A few days later, on 29 December unidentified gunmen shot dead Ahamed Mahmoud Mohamed, a community leader in Hagadera camp. Three days after that, another community leader was fatally shot in Ifo camp.
Both men played prominent roles in Community Peace and Security Teams (CPSTs), a kind of volunteer police service set up several years ago.
“These people were killed in the fight between Kenyan [police] forces and Al-Shabab,” one refugee leader told IRIN, asking not to be named.
“It is not safe any more to work as a leader during this critical situation. If you don’t work with the police the police will crack down, but if we cooperate, Al-Shabab will target us,” he said.
One inhabitant of Ifo camp, where residents last week handed over to police bomb-making equipment they had discovered, said: “We sleep with a lot of fear in the night, because we are afraid of being attacked by those who hid the explosives.”
A youth leader from Dagahaley, another of Dadaab’s camps, said he left the complex after receiving “several threatening calls” and hearing about unfamiliar people searching for me in the [residential] blocks.
“Since I was part of the community security team, I am very fearful for my life.”
He said the caller had warned him, in Somali: “If you don’t stop what you are doing, we will come to where you are.”
“There is no protection in Dadaab, it is just [becoming] like Somalia. People are killed in broad daylight so I can’t risk my life there,” he added.
“There have been some people who have received threats who have been evacuated,” Lennart Hernander, Kenya representative of the Lutheran World Federation, an NGO that provides training for the CPSTs and is responsible for housing and security in Dadaab.
While these refugees had some position of responsibility in Dadaab, they were not all working with the CPSTs, he said.
“We don’t know why it happened and don’t want to speculate,” he said of the two killings.
The CPSTs “are extremely important in solving daily problems in the camps, such as domestic violence, arguments between refugees, queue jumping, all sorts of problems that occur”, Hernander told IRIN.
“They are especially important for the protection of women; they patrol the camps day and night. We are quite sure they prevent sexual abuse.
“We have to review the whole [CPST] system,” he said.
Insecurity in Dadaab has resulted in the humanitarian presence and response being limited to essential services only. General food distributions were briefly interrupted in late 2011, but resumed shortly before the New Year.
“Now that the community leaders who played the role of aid workers are targeted, we will have no one to rely on. Delivery of services is turning very difficult. We are in a very bad situation,” said Hassan Bunow, a long-term resident of Ifo camp.
All these factors, coupled with high food prices and good rains back home, have prompted some refugees to return to Somalia, according to Mohamud Jama, a community leader in Ifo camp.
“We know and have seen that many families who lived in Ifo 2 have gone back to their farms in southern Somalia. They had initially fled from famine but now there is rain. If you visit now, you will find very many empty tents,” he added, without giving details of numbers.
Several youths were detained on 5 January after community members reported bomb-making equipment found in Ifo camp.
“They arrested our innocent children for no reason when we volunteered to cooperate with them. Now the whole village is in terror of the police. Other sections of the camp are afraid to give information [after seeing] how violent the police acted today,” said one resident.
Citizens’ Rights Watch, a lobby group, gave a damning account of the police response after it visited Dadaab recently, accusing the police of committing several gang rapes and looting and destroying property.
However, Kenya Police deputy spokesman Charles Owino Wahongo dismissed the allegations.
"Claims of police harassment of people in Dadaab or in northern Kenya in general are not sincere because nobody has ever reported to the police about these claims,” he told IRIN.
“If indeed there are cases of high-handedness by security agencies, including the police in their security operations in Dadaab, we are open to receive such complaints and deal with them within the law. Up to this point, we can’t talk much about them," he added.
*This is a revised version of a story first published earlier on 9 January