27 Sep 2013

After Westgate, ‘the Somalis and Muslims take all the blame’

I was eating “vegetable chapati special” with a local businessman in Eastleigh when the email pinged in from the Foreign Office advising British citizens to avoid the place. We laughed. In the last year there have been 11 explosions and small terror attacks in Eastleigh, one of which maimed the local MP, but outsiders didn’t seem too worried then.

The reason for the Foreign Office alert, presumably, is that Eastleigh – often called Little Mogadishu – is home to 600,000 people, mostly of Somali ethnic origin. Some are refugees from Somalia, while others were born and brought up in Kenya. Since al-Shabaab, the Somali militant group, claimed the attack on the Westgate mall, they’ve been waiting for the police to sweep in and arrest the usual suspects.


“The community is a bit jittery,” said Ahmed Mohamed, a local leader who runs a security consultancy, as we walked down a dusty street of stalls selling oranges, cloth, spare parts for cars and myriad other essential goods. “The main problem is corruption. It compromises security.”

In the past, he told me, after any incident, dozens of Somalis would be arrested and families would have to bribe the police to get their sons out of jail.

“Somalis in Eastleigh today were in fear. They have really tarnished our name because the name of Somalia is appearing day and night in every media,” said one young man. “Some of the Somalis here are refugees and don’t have the proper papers, so we fear harassment from the police.”

People I met today denied that any of the Westgate attackers could have come from Eastleigh but they did admit that al- Shabaab tried to recruit unemployed youths in the area.

“An idle mind is the devil’s workshop, ” said a man in a long white jellabia, as he came out of the mosque after Friday prayers.  He blamed the Somali diaspora, many of whom live in the UK and America. “They come from western countries with money. They brainwash them.  So young people mainly join for financial reasons, not that they are ideologically interested.”

Wandering round Eastleigh, with its non-stop bustle of street stalls, roadworks, and new construction, I saw more women in the full-face black niqab than I have in the past. Traditionally, Somali women wear beautifully brightly coloured wraps which cover their heads but not their faces.

“My greatest fear is al-Shabaab because they’re blowing up these places and then the Somalis and Muslims take all the blame,” said a plump woman in glorious shining fluorescent pink.

“Kenyan Muslims always lived peacefully with Christians but after this incident they’re worried they can’t trust us,” said another, in purple. “They think we’re all terrorists.”

I felt no fear or threat in Eastleigh today – rather, people were welcoming and hospitable. There was no chance that the Channel 4 News team would be allowed to pay for our special vegetable chapatis. We were guests.

There are youths in the community who might have been recruited by al-Shabaab, but the main problem is that no-one trusts the police to arrest the right people, and many fear that Somalis will collectively be expected to shoulder the blame for the Westgate attack.

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