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by Laetitia Bader

Watching the horrific images and reports from Nairobi’s Westgate mall over the past 10 days has provoked other memories, many from Kenya’s neighbor, Somalia. In April, al-Shabaab militants stormed Mogadishu’s main court complex, killing at least 30 Somali civilians. As the attack unfolded, I waited apprehensively to hear of the fate of two lawyers I knew who were inside the courts.

As information – and terrible photographs – slowly trickled in, I thought about how these lawyers had courageously defended people from trumped-up government charges in the very court now under attack. Eventually, I learned they both were killed.

Sadly, Mogadishu residents have experienced such horrors too many times before.

Throughout its six-year-long campaign in south-central Somalia, al-Shabaab has shown no pity for Somali civilians. In fact, it often targets them specifically for killings and forced recruitment of adults and children as soldiers. Amidst fighting in Mogadishu, al-Shabaab launched hit and run attacks from civilian areas to entice indiscriminate return fire by Ethiopian, and later, African Union forces (AMISOM).

People living in al-Shabaab-controlled areas have faced repressive social control and harsh punishments including stonings, floggings, and public executions. Gathering information on these events is very dangerous, but we know that such abuses continue.

Many Somalis fled to Kenya because of al-Shabaab’s attacks, only to face discrimination and sometimes serious abuses at the hands of the Kenyan security forces who wrongfully accuse them of supporting al-Shabaab. In mid-2011, I spoke to dozens of children and their parents who had fled Somalia fearing forced recruitment. Several of the children had escaped after al-Shabaab took them from their schools and homes to training camps. The children were petrified of being re-recruited. 

In the aftermath of the attackon the Westgate mall, Kenyan, regional and international actors will no doubt gear up to respond in both Kenya and Somalia. One response may be to fund AMISOM, including Kenyan forces, fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia. Both have on occasion ignored civilian protection and injured and killed civilians.

While anger about Westgate is completely understandable, Somali civilians – including those living as refugees in Kenya – do not deserve to be the target of reprisals yet again. Policies that overlook civilian protection will only add fuel to the conflict and result in further suffering. No one can afford to make such mistakes.

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