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Why some Shabaab returnees wish they remained in Somalia

Wednesday August 4, 2021

Kayama Kazungu, 25, from Kijiwetanga in Malindi, crossed into Somalia in 2015 and married a man she later realised was an al Shabaab fighter.

She was lured into the country by an associate who promised her a well-paying job. Kazungu eventually fled back to Kenya in 2019, but took her life a year later.

Her husband had been abusive and led a secretive life. At the appeal of the government, she came back to the country, taking up the amnesty extended to Shabaab returnees.

She went back to her community in Malindi with the promise of state protection. Kazungu was counselled, rehabilitated and she renounced any links to Shabab.

She embraced her society but the community did not reciprocate.

She endured suspicion from neighbours, received calls from unknown numbers threatening her and calling her traitor. Suspected anti-terror police unit agents often broke into her house.

“My daughter never lived a peaceful life since she came back to the country. People always called her gaidi, (terrorist) while the threatening calls and messages on her phone called her msaliti, (traitor). We regretted her coming back,” Kazungu’s mother Zuheri Lali told the Star on the phone.

Kazungu’s experience is an example of the life Shaabab returnees face.

The integration of Kenyans who defected from al Shabaab and returned to the country is difficult, with many left with permanent scars.

The returnees face rejection from the community, terror group sympathisers hunt them down while suspected state agents disappear them.  

Like Kazungu, some take their lives, while others wish they could go back.

Between 2011 and 2019 there were 265 al Shabaab-led attacks in the country with an estimated 10 per cent of the group’s militants thought to be Kenyans.

Francis Auma, the lead researcher at Muslims for Human Rights in Mombasa has been following up on the fate of the returnees.

He told the Star that to cope, some of the returnees have had to flee to other towns away from their families and adopt new identities to survive.

Some go back to the fighters while most get gunned down by both police and the terrorists, he said.

For example, Omar Salim Unda, a Shabaab returnee was gunned down three times in Dabaso area of Watamu, Kilifi county on January 2 this year.

The early morning incident happened when the 27-year-old was driving his car from Tamboni area.

Two vehicles blocked his way at Dabaso junction, forcing him to swerve off the road before stopping. Two assailants emerged, dragged him out to the opposite side of the road before pumping the bullets in his head and neck at close range.

His father Salim Unda said his son always faced threats but denied he ever involved himself in crime after his return.

Auma said by their count, some 17 people have disappeared, half of them suspected to be returnees.

Some families are even pleading to have the bodies of their disappeared loved ones handed to them for burial so they can get closure.
For example, Mwajuma Kariuki’s son, who worked in Mpeketoni area went missing two years ago.

The 31-years-old Jeneza Kariuki left his wife and three children for Somalia to work as a porter for the terror group and was promised to be paid over $250 (Sh25,000) per month.

The family was lucky as they re-established a connection with the man and in March this year, he returned. He took up the state offer of rehabilitation and deradicalisation and got back to society.

Mwajuma said unknown gunmen broke into her son’s house early this last month, dragging him away into the forest and executed him.

“The saddest part is, they killed him and took away the body. I’m pleading with the state to help me get his body back so we can bury and get on with life,” he said.

While the local community and human rights groups point accusing fingers at the police, Haki Africa executive director Hussein Khalid thinks the police cannot entirely be blamed.

Khalid said Shabaab sympathisers are also tracking the returnees, threatening them and killing them.

Regarding them as sellouts, the sympathisers give the information of their whereabouts to the terror group’s agents and help to abduct them.

Khalid said sometimes the sympathisers break into the homes of the returnees dressed in security agents' uniforms to harass and abduct them.

“It is a major problem and sympathisers are major players,” he said.

To help the affected families cope, a human rights crusader in Malindi Mareb Shibiyanga has formed a counselling group for the mothers who have lost their loved ones over terrorism links and returnees who are women.

“No one wants to associate with them. It is not good for them to feel isolated because they could potentially be violent,” Shibiyanga told Aljazeera in a documentary.

Proper policy

Khalid said while the government’s amnesty and deradicalisation are yielding results as scores are deserting the terror group to come back, the focus should turn on integrating them and secure societal acceptance.

To end the stigma, he said, the state should develop proper laws or policies to guide the integration and ensure their safety as this will encourage even more to leave the terror groups.

“This will not only safeguard the security officers who are dealing with the returnees but also ensure the community understands what is happening. Presently, it is not clear what happens when one surrenders to the authority,” Khalid added.

A clear legal framework will also address the concern of returnees being targeted for assassination by security agents as well as by al Shabaab sympathisers who consider them as traitors.

“A law or policy will safeguard the interests of the country and community as well as offer a clear path of reform that will help address emerging issues.”

He said his organisation was in touch with the National Counter Terrorism Centre to help craft the policy which will later be subjected to stakeholders for consideration.


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