Collateral Damage: The ‘war on terror’ still casts a long shadow in some unlikely places
I had been away from Kenya for too long. So when I returned last August, I sought out two long-lost friends.
The first was Abdirizak Noor Iftin, an energetic and friendly teacher. He is 26, and he does not belong in Kenya. Iftin is Somali; we had met three years before in his ruined hometown of Mogadishu, where Iftin tutored his young students in English. The job sometimes required darting from house to house under mortar fire. In Somalia one is always in the middle of a war.
Iftin was brave and committed to his work, but even so the violence became intolerable. Last year he escaped to Nairobi, occupying a closet-sized room in a slum. When I arrived, the door guard at his tenement — a bearded giant with a zabiba, or Muslim prayer callus, on his forehead — attempted to block my entry. He relented only after I submitted to a pat-down. Iftin was apologetic and offered a tense smile. He had no power here, he said in a whisper. He told me anxiously that he must keep off the streets to avoid extortion by the Kenyan police, and he steered clear of the sympathizers of al-Shabab, the ruthless Somali militia linked with al Qaeda: They spied on the slum’s large population of exiles. Iftin’s dim cubicle had a curtain, but no door. I was drawing too much attention with my presence. After a few minutes, I pressed a bank note into my friend’s hand, wished him luck, and fled his rent-a-cell.
The following day I went looking for Al-Amin Kimathi. Kimathi is a middle-aged Kenyan human rights worker with the droopy eyelids of Yoda. When we had met four years earlier, he was an invaluable source for journalists working in the region. This time I dialed his phone number, but got no answer. I tried for days, but he never picked up. Then one morning more than a week later, I opened a newspaper and there he was — locked up in a jail cell in neighboring Uganda, a short article dryly announced, where he had been arrested on charges of terrorism. He had been incarcerated 11 months, awaiting trial.
I was stunned. In 2007, Kimathi had almost single-handedly exposed the largest extraordinary-rendition episode in Africa, in which Kenyan authorities had secretly flown more than 100 terrorism suspects, including their own citizens, to “black site” interrogation centers in Ethiopia. Kimathi’s investigation embarrassed the governments involved. It shamed the United States, which collaborated closely in the covert program. He potentially faced a death sentence. It felt like a setup.
When I finally reached Kimathi by phone weeks later, he told me Uganda had released him from Luzira Prison without charges and without apology. “I could use help,” he told me. “I am starting over, from zero.” He did not sound well. His voice was feeble, shaky. For almost a year he had lived in solitary confinement. It was hard to readjust to freedom, he complained.
Then it hit me: This was a conversation I would probably be having for the rest of my life.
Kimathi and Iftin do not know each other, but they have one thing in common: Their lives have been upended, directly or indirectly, by the fateful U.S.-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, an operation that was intended to crush Islamic extremists, stabilize Somalia, and install more tractable leadership — but accomplished the exact opposite. Although the assault did topple a burgeoning Islamist movement in Mogadishu and some brutal al Qaeda operatives have since been killed in clandestine U.S. helicopter and drone strikes, the intervention led to the death of at least 16,000 civilians and the internationalization of a self-contained civil war that had begun 15 years earlier. The Ethiopians declared victory and began withdrawing in 2007. Intense fighting, piracy, and war-enabled famines grind on, meanwhile, in a more radicalized Somalia.