NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The streets of Nairobi's Somali community are no longer congested. A once-bustling trade in cheap imports is quiet, and the nightlife is almost dead. Many Somalis are staying inside out of fear of xenophobic attacks and police arrests.
Kenyan troops last month moved into southern Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabab militants. Those militants, in return, threatened to retaliate with large-scale terror attacks in Nairobi.
Ethnic Somalis — many of them Kenyan citizens — who live in Nairobi feel caught in the middle.
"There is that feeling of fear. There is fear of an outbreak of xenophobia if a large-scale event takes place, so we are like this — maybe the lull before the storm," said Salah Abdi Sheikh, a Kenyan-Somali who wrote a book on the 1984 massacre of possibly thousands of Somali men by Kenyan government troops.
This time, Somalis have suffered ethnically based harassment and degrading put-downs, although no violent attacks have yet been reported.
Several email messages and postings on social media have been "demonizing Somalis," said Mzalendo Kibunjia, the head of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a government commission working to promote unity. He said the government is tracking down the people responsible and that his commission is planning to charge them with the use of hate speech, an offense that carries a $10,000 fine or a jail term of three years.
A Somali woman filed a complaint to the commission last week after she was spat on by a man because of her ethnicity, Kibunjia said.
Some Kenyans posted hate messages against Somalis on social media sites following two grenade attacks in Nairobi last month, but the messages died down after a non-Somali Kenyan was arrested and convicted.
Still, Nairobi's Somali neighborhood — Eastleigh — has lost much of its bustling edge since the mid-October push into Somalia by Kenyan troops. Freelance journalist Ahmed Ogle lives in Eastleigh and says business of imported goods and clothes has slowed to a trickle. Merchants are waiting to see if the tension erupts into violence.
"When there is phobia, you know when there is fear for your lives and property, every investor will hold on and wait until this situation changes. So what is happening now is they are just watching," Ogle said.
Fear has also curtailed social activities, he said, with people fearing that if they go out in the evening they could be arrested. Police raids have been carried out in North Eastern province and in Eastleigh. Somalis have also been accused of laundering millions of dollars of pirate ransom money in Eastleigh, which has seen a building boom in recent years. The allegation has never been proved though the government said in 2009 it was investigating it.
Kenyan authorities also suspect the militant Islamist al-Shabab group has clandestine networks in Kenya.
Joshua Orwa Ojode, a deputy minister for internal security, told parliament recently that al-Shabab is like a snake with its tail in Somalia and it head in Nairobi.
The journalist Ogle, however, said that since Kenya's operation against al-Shabab began police have refrained from carrying out mass arrests in Eastleigh, despite threats by a top government official to do so. Police have targeted individuals they suspect of involvement with al-Shabab and arrested them without affecting the community, Ogle said.
Tensions between Somalis in Kenya and those of other groups date back at least to time the country won independence in 1963 from Britain, Sheikh said.
Between 1963 and 1967 ethnic Somalis in Kenya's North Eastern province attempted to join Somalia. The Kenyan government violently clamped down on the secessionists, and many innocent people were caught up in the process, Sheikh said. This was followed by massacres in the region from 1978 to 1989. They were blamed on government troops as they clamped down on banditry in the region and interethnic clashes.
A Kenyan government truth commission is investigating the 1984 government killings in North Eastern province, at the Wagalla airstrip. The operation was meant to crack down on ethnic Somalis who were holding illegal weapons.
State sponsored killings, human rights abuses, economic crimes and political assassinations punctuate Kenya's postcolonial history, creating animosity between communities. The tensions helped fuel 2007-08 postelection tribal violence, according to a government report, in which more than 1,000 people died.