Thousands of people are fleeing parts of the northeastern region of Mandera and neighbouring Somali border areas after Kenya beefed up its security presence to counter possible threats from Somali armed groups.
“At least 1,500 families [9,000 people] have left Elwak [an area in Mandera] and its environs,” Titus Mung’ou, Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) public relations officer, said.
This had left Elwak virtually a ghost town and affected humanitarian activities, Mung’ou said. “We have to follow the people who are moving.”
He said some of the displaced had set up temporary shelter in Kotulo, Shimbri Fatuma and the Wajir-Mandera border. “Tens or hundreds more are with their relatives,” he said.
“Many more [people] have fled other areas along the border,” said Mohamed Issack Dualle, an official with a local NGO, the Rural Agency for Community Development and Assistance, adding that the total number of people displaced was difficult to ascertain due to the volatile situation in the area.
Security has been intensified along the Kenya-Somalia border since the abduction of two nuns from Elwak two weeks ago by suspected Somali armed men, who also hijacked four vehicles.
The abduction accelerated population movement, Mung’ou said. Last week, there were also claims of heavy artillery fire in Bullaahawa in Somalia, making people wary of a security operation, he said.
Hundreds of people were displaced in October after a security operation in Mandera following a request by the local members of parliament when conflict between the Garre and Murule clans took a cross-border dimension, with one clan getting support from Al-Shabab militants from Somalia.
Hundreds of people were injured in the operation, according to human rights activists.
Residents of Bullaahawa and Bulla Hache are also moving farther inland, fearing a confrontation between Kenyan troops and the militia, who are said to be holding the two nuns more than 100km inside Somalia.
The Kenyan Military has scaled up its patrol activities following the official closure of the border to aid deliveries. This is affecting the humanitarian situation in Somalia, where there are more than 1.3 million IDPs, according to a Mandera Crisis Situation Report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Since January, a large influx of asylum-seekers fleeing violence in Somalia to the refugee camps in Dadaab, in Kenya’s northeast, has been recorded.
The refugee population in Dadaab, whose three camps are holding almost three times their capacity, has risen to 224,000 from 171,000 in January.
According to UN officials, the overcrowding in the camps could lead to a humanitarian crisis. By the end of this year, at least 58,000 asylum-seekers are expected to have arrived.
Several international aid agencies have also restricted staff movements, putting a strain on programme implementation and the delivery of relief.
Meanwhile, IDPs are living in deplorable conditions, with cases of malaria, typhoid and pneumonia increasing. Hundreds of diarrhoea cases have also been reported.
Reluctant to return
Josephat Maingi, Northeastern Provincial Commissioner, said it was still difficult to convince people to return home. “It is hard and impossible to force somebody back to his home; we know that there is fear all over the district. Some [of the fear is] as a result of rumours.
“I wish to assure locals in Mandera that they are safe … and [that] they have no reason to leave [their] homes,” he told IRIN. The deployment of the army along the border is meant to improve security, said the government.
However, he said, the border would remain closed. A curfew imposed last week would also remain in force until normalcy resumes.
Military intervention mooted
Maingi said negotiations were ongoing to secure the release of the nuns.
However, according to a senior police officer based at the provincial headquarters in Garissa, there was a possibility of military intervention.
“Elders from the Kenyan side have already presented a clear message to those in Somalia … but we have given an ultimatum that in case the militias fail to release the nuns and the vehicles, then we are ready to strike by next week,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.