On a sizzling Saturday in January, I visited the home of Dakan G., down a dusty path off the main gravel road running through Wajir, at the heart of Kenya’s North Eastern province. Dakan’s grandchildren milled around outside the tukul’s narrow entryway. Her daughter lingered in the doorway.

Dakan, a frail woman of around 50, was reclined on her bed. She mustered the energy to sit as I entered, but explained she could not stand to greet me: she had been bedridden since Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers beat her a month before, dragging her along the road by her neck. An epilepsy patient, Dakan said that before the incident her epileptic episodes were rare. Now, they’re nearly continuous.

Dakan was among 56 Wajir residents who were brutalized by the KDF on December 11, 2011, after an explosive device detonated on Wajir’s Mandera Road, injuring several soldiers. According to interviews Human Rights Watch conducted with twelve victims and two civil society organizations in Wajir, soldiers cordoned off the area, rounded up nearby civilians, beat them with batons and kicked them as they led them to the scene of the explosion.

The residents caught up in the sweep -- approximately 44 men, 10 women and two children – were forced to lie in the gravel road and roll from one end to the other, in an exercise that had nothing to do with policing or intelligence gathering, and could only have been for the purpose of humiliation. Soldiers shouted at them, accusing them of being “al-Shabaab.” They forced them to lie facing the hot son for over two hours, beating those who attempted to close their eyes. Maash A. lost two teeth and partial vision in one eye after soldiers repeatedly struck him in the face with a gun butt. Abdikadir F., age 15, is now terrified at the sight of soldiers: his father says that every day before leaving for school, Abdikadir climbs a ladder to peer over the compound wall and ensure no soldiers are around.

Dakan, Maash, and Abdikadir are among the dozens of victims I interviewed while conducting research for the Human Rights Watch report “Criminal Reprisals: Kenyan Police and Military Abuses against Ethnic Somalis,” released in Nairobi yesterday. The stories of KDF brutality from Wajir were echoed by victims beaten by Kenyan soldiers in Mandera in November and Garissa between November and January.

Meanwhile, in Dadaab in December, the police beat over a hundred refugees as a form of collective punishment for a series of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. During the raid, police raped at least one woman; beat children as young as four years old; looted millions of shillings worth of property; and told refugees to “go back to Somalia.”

The conduct of these police and soldiers didn’t emerge from nowhere. Since Operation Linda Nchi brought Kenya into Somalia’s armed conflict in October, militants suspected of supporting al-Shabaab have launched a series of attacks within Kenya. Grenades, IEDs and targeted shootings in North Eastern province between October and February killed at least 20 civilians, six police and one soldier; dozens more have been injured. The challenges security personnel face in confronting these attacks is daunting.

Though the attacks are abhorrent, and undoubtedly contribute to significant work-related stress – especially for police and soldiers who have seen colleagues killed or injured in the line of duty – they can never justify the kind of indiscriminate abuse of civilians that we documented.

Further, the reprisals damage the fragile trust between North Eastern residents, who have been victims of historical marginalization, and the Kenyan state. If the police are committed to identifying the perpetrators and preventing future attacks, they can do so only by building public trust and enhancing programs such as community policing.

Since February there have been no major militant attacks in North Eastern province. As a corollary, security force abuses have subsided. But no officers have been charged or disciplined.

One way to start afresh in North Eastern, to win back that broken trust, is to hold accountable the police and soldiers who committed crimes under Kenyan law, including  rape, assault, arbitrary detention, extortion, looting, and destruction of property. They should be prosecuted for these crimes.

The government has promised to investigate. The defense ministry has taken some initial steps, forming a “board of inquiry” that has interviewed victims in Garissa, Mandera, and Wajir. It is unclear what steps the ministry will take if the reports are confirmed. The internal security ministry has failed to investigate abuses, although a ministry official told Human Rights Watch he would instruct the provincial administration to probe police conduct in Dadaab.

As an MP from Mandera told Human Rights Watch: “The war will likely continue, and they need to avoid responding like this again. They cannot correct a wrong with a wrong.”

Neela Ghoshal is the East Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.