THE BORDER BETWEEN KENYA and Somalia is a long strip of land. Somalia has a long history of chaos and civil war. Kenya, on the other hand, is trying to maintain its national security against constant threats of terrorism spilling over from its neighbour.
The border area is where hordes of refugees from Somalia have streamed to escape chaos in their homeland. Overwhelming masses have converged there, creating a humanitarian crisis.
Huge numbers of people are forced to live in depressing conditions, with insufficient resources. The influx of refugees has compounded Kenya’s security concerns, because many of them are streaming into the country unfiltered and unchecked for possible terrorist leanings.
THE KENYA POLICE FORCE HAS singled out the Somalia border as a major challenge in the country’s efforts against terrorism. The country has invested substantial resources to patrolling the border to curb terrorist acts. The cost of acquiring the technology and equipment to screen and detect criminals, particularly at airports and other points of entry, is prohibitive.
In place of technological solutions, Kenya has implemented new security procedures such as requiring all chartered cargo aircraft departing Somalia to land at Wajir for inspection before proceeding to Nairobi. The planes are also prohibited from returning any passengers to Somalia.
Maintaining the border’s integrity has become even more difficult since the fall of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia and the rise of insurgency. The radical group, with known ties to al Qaeda, ruled Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia last year until they were driven out by the combined forces of the Somalia interim government and Ethiopia.
Remnants of the group have launched an Iraqi-style insurgency with near-daily roadside bombs, land mines and grenade attacks. The new warfare has placed additional hardship on Somalis, as many more are being forced from their homes and are heading to Kenya.
The insurgency generally aims its attacks at Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies, but civilians are often wounded or killed as well. The insurgents, dressed in civilian clothes, take aim at soldiers. Unable to recognise them, the soldiers fire back, and often, innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire.
Civilians also do not know when an attack is imminent. Bombs thrown by insurgents usually hiss a few seconds before going off. Soldiers have been trained to recognise the sound and take cover. Civilians suffer the consequences. The seemingly endless stream of civilian deaths is shocking, even in bloodstained Mogadishu. Pregnant women, elderly people, and even entire families have been victims of the violence.
Last month, five children stopped to play with a toy they spotted in the street. The toy turned out to be a land mine. Before they had realised their mistake, the device exploded, killing all five. More than 6,000 civilians were killed by insurgents linked to terrorist groups last year. Officials refuse to say how many troops were wounded or killed, but witness reports indicate the numbers are far fewer than those of civilians.
Recently, there were reports of six insurgents with pistols executing a blindfolded captive on a Mogadishu street. He was suspected of spying for government forces. A second victim was killed in the ensuing crossfire. At least 25 people were killed in Mogadishu in less than a week.
Mortar bombs damaged parts of Bakara, and sustained fighting broke out in other parts of the city. Some Somalis say the insurgents have grown increasingly confident, while the interim government has been hobbled by in-fighting. THE GOVERNMENT SAYS THE AL Qaeda-linked insurgents are backed by 4,500 foreign jihadists from Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Middle East.
The toll exacted by the insurgency has been high. In addition to the thousands killed, more have been forced to head for the Kenya border to seek refuge.
In December, seven people were arrested in Nairobi and Mombasa on suspicion of bringing grenades and pistols over the border from Somalia. It was unclear what targets they had in mind, but police are certain a terrorist attack was part of their plan.
In Somalia, the fighting continues between government forces and insurgents sympathetic to the radicals. And in Kenya, the threat of terrorism spilling over the Somali border remains a major source of concern.
Ms Chepkonga is a development security consultant on Africa conflicts.SOURCE: Nation Media, March 17, 2008