The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: The Changing Fortunes of Garissa Town

From the safest town in East and Central Africa, the town is now the epicentre of retaliatory attacks by al Shabaab sympathisers

Interpol once voted Garissa the safest town in East and Central Africa. However, this is no longer the case as a spate of grenade and gun attacks, allegedly executed by al Shabaab militants and their sympathisers, have rocked the town.

Since KDF entered Somalia in October last year to pursue the militants, the town has suffered the most in retaliatory attacks by the embattled militia.

On Monday, three KDF soldiers who had stopped to mend a puncture at a garage on Kismayu Road in Garissa were shot dead by suspected al Shabaab militants.

The soldiers were on transit to Somalia in a mission to restore peace and tranquility after capturing the strategic port city of Kismayu. Many believe Garissa town has been turned into an unofficial stronghold of the militants fleeing annihilation by Amisom forces in Somalia and their sympathisers.

Abdi Mohamed, a local businessman, admits that the town is full of al Shabaab sympathisers who are out to cause insecurity in the town.

"It is simple; these people (al Shabaab) were offended when the government took its troops to Somalia to attack them. The situation was worsened by the capturing of the port city of Kismayu. This is when the trouble started, and because Garissa is a cosmopolitan and big town, it is easy for them to commit their criminal acts and run to the many settlements that are not far away from the town," Abdi says.

"They believe doing so would easily scare and drive away residents and investors particularly those who hail from other parts of the country."

Elizabeth Moraa, who used to run a kiosk on Ngamia Road and which was attacked late last year when a grenade was hurled at a crowd instantly killing six people, has since gone back to her rural home.

"I don't think it was possible for me to continue living and doing business in Garissa especially after witnessing such a deadly act which led to the death of some my closest friends and customers. I decided to pack my belongings and resettle in my rural home in Keroka where I am comfortable with the little I get. The safety of an individual comes first before anything else," said Moraa when reached on phone.

Garissa County Commissioner Mohamed Maalim admits that the situation in the town is dire. "They are killing innocent people and our security officers but we want to tell them wherever they are that their days are numbered; we will surely catch up with them," Maalim said in an earlier interview.

Garissa police boss Geroge losku says it was important to come up with new ways of fighting crime in the district. To arrest the runaway insecurity, police officers are now patrolling and setting up impromptu checkpoints in various parts of the town. They have also taken up positions outside churches, police stations and other high-profile installations targeted by the militants.

Gatherings like in churches, bars and bus stations have been the targets of these criminals with innocent civilians and security officers losing their lives and scores of others seriously wounded.

Visitors, who come to the town for the first time, are met with the cloud of uncertainty and insecurity hanging over the sun-baked town. Most of the attacks are executed guerrilla style as assailants varnish in thin air immediately after the raids.

The Star has established that the number of churchgoers has drastically reduced as worshippers fear for their lives opting to pray at home. The situation is the same at most social places with the owners admitting that their businesses are doing badly.

In another attack this month, two undercover police officers on patrol were shot dead in Garissa market. A pistol was snatched from one of the officers.

A few weeks ago, a regular police officer was shot dead and his colleague seriously injured. The assailants escaped with a G-3 rifle belonging to the slain officer.

Early last month, two men shot dead two police officers near an administration police post as they were going for a night patrol. At least ten officers have lost their lives in the line of duty in the last two months.

So serious is the matter that a series of security meetings have been organised by the government in a bid to find a lasting solution to the insecurity problem. The meetings organised by clerics, elders, youths and women leaders have so far not yielded any fruits.

Following the killing of the three KDF officers, unofficial curfew is being enforced by the officers are searching for the suspected killers in residential houses.

There were allegations that civilians were beaten up by the KDF soldiers with others sustaining gun wounds and were admitted at the Garissa provincial hospital. The incident prompted the Defense minister Yussuf Haji to personally tour Garissa on Tuesday in a bid to restore calm in the town.

Haji assured Garissa residents of calm following the loss of lives and destruction of property worth millions of shillings. Haji said the culprits behind the killing of three KDF soldiers were being pursued and that they will soon be brought to justice.

The minister also visited Garissa Provincial General Hospital to check on the patients who were receiving treatment as a result of injuries inflicted to them following Tuesday's swoop by KDF officers.

Haji said he will present his findings to the Cabinet for any further action. As for know, Garissa looks like a ghost city as locals stay indoors, unsure about their security.

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