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Dr. Hawa Abdi, a Somali humanitarian, was honored for her work battling famine, murder, disease, and rape in her native country at the Women in the World Summit, which the conflict at home prevented her from attending. She is pictured here at last year's summit, Marc Bryan-Brown

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Collateral damage: the 'war on terror' still casts a long shadow in unlikely places (1)

Collateral damage: the 'war on terror' still casts a long shadow in unlikely places

Author(s): Paul Salopek
Source: Foreign Policy. .192 (March-April 2012): p70.

Full Text:
[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I HAD BEEN AWAY FROM KENYA for too long. So when I returned last August, I sought out two long-lost friends.

The first was Abdirizak Noor Iftin, an energetic and friendly teacher. He is 26, and he does not belong in Kenya. Iftin is Somali; we had last met three years before in his mined hometown of Mogadishu, where Iftin tutored his young students in English. The job sometimes required darting from house to house under mortar fire. In Somalia one is always in the middle of a war.

Iftin was brave and committed to his work, but even so the violence became intolerable. Last year he escaped to Nairobi, occupying a closet-sized room in a slum. When I arrived, the door guard at his tenement--a bearded giant with a zabiba, or Muslim prayer callus, on his forehead--attempted to block my entry. He relented only after I submitted to a pat-down. Iftin was apologetic and offered a tense smile. He had no power here, he said in a whisper. He told me anxiously that he must keep off the streets to avoid extortion by the Kenyan police, and he steered clear of the sympathizers of al-Shabab, the ruthless Somali militia linked with al Qaeda: They spied on the slum's large population of exiles. Iftin's dim cubicle had a curtain, but no door. I was drawing too much attention with my presence. After a few minutes, I pressed a bank note into my friend's hand, wished him luck, and fled his rent-a-cell.

The following day I went looking for Al-Amin Kimathi. Kimathi is a middle-aged Kenyan human rights worker with the droopy eyelids of Yoda. When we had met four years earlier, he was an invaluable source for journalists working in the region. This time I dialed his phone number, but got no answer. I tried for days, but he never picked up. Then one morning more than a week later, I opened a newspaper and there he was--locked up in a jail cell in neighboring Uganda, a short article dryly announced, where he had been arrested on charges of terrorism. He had been incarcerated 11 months, awaiting trial.

I was stunned. In 2007, Kimathi had almost singlehandedly exposed the largest extraordinary-rendition episode in Africa, in which Kenyan authorities had secretly flown more than 100 terrorism suspects, including their own citizens, to "black site" interrogation centers in Ethiopia. Kimathi's investigation embarrassed the governments involved. It shamed the United States, which collaborated closely in the covert program. He potentially faced a death sentence. It felt like a setup.

When I finally reached Kimathi by phone weeks later, he told me Uganda had released him from Luzira Prison without charges and without apology. "I could use help," he told me. "I am starting over, from zero." He did not sound well. His voice was feeble, shaky. For almost a year he had lived in solitary confinement. It was hard to readjust to freedom, he complained.

Then it hit me: This was a conversation Iwould probably be having for the rest of my life.

Kimathi and Iftin do not know each other, but they have one thing in common: Their lives have been upended, directly or indirectly, by the fateful U.S.-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, an operation that was intended to crush Islamic extremists, stabilize Somalia, and install more tractable leadership---but accomplished the exact opposite. Although the assault did topple a burgeoning Islamist movement in Mogadishu and some brutal al Qaeda operatives have since been killed in clandestine U.S. helicopter and drone strikes, the intervention led to the death of at least 16,000 civilians and the internationalization of a self-contained civil war that had begun 15 years earlier. The Ethiopians declared victory and began withdrawing in 2007. Intense fighting, piracy, and war-enabled famines grind on, meanwhile, in a more radicalized Somalia.

What makes this tragedy unique among the many that have ravaged the Horn of Africa is what it says about the United States' 10-year-old global war on terror, or however else we choose to rebrand it. A decade on, that shadowy conflict has crossed an underappreciated Rubicon of sorts. In fragile places like Africa, it has taken root and assumed a robust, independent life of its own. It continues to claim innocent victims. As we go forward, most of those victims will no longer be the "collateral damage" of combat, the bystanders killed by fanatical suicide bombers or U.S. troops in places like Afghanistan. No: They will be the Abdirizak Noor Iftins and Al-Amin Kimathis of the world, faceless refugees and political prisoners, anonymous casualties of a murky sea change in the rule of law, in tolerance, and in accountability.

Even as the 9/11 attacks recede from the day-to-day consciousness of Americans, the enormous bow wave of U.S. antiterrorism policy still rolls heavily across the globe, diffracting off friend and foe alike, giving rise to secondary conflicts and unforeseen struggles, and empowering hotheads and autocrats. Millions living far from American-contested battlefields are swept up by it, tossed around by it, capsized by it. All the while, this new order becomes more "normal"--more invisible--to both locals and the distant policymakers in Washington who set it in motion long ago.

I asked Kimathi over the phone: What kind of help did he want?

"Anything," he replied. "Anything."

ALLOW ME TO TELL YOU about my two friends. It is unlikely you will read about them anywhere else.

One night in 2008 I lay on the roof of my safe house in Mogadishu watching the fireworks of red tracer bullets arcing across the sky. In the morning, my security detail brought in a skinny young man in a powder-blue tracksuit, and draped in fake bling. He was Abdirizak Noor Iftin. He wanted to practice his English. He had learned it from BBC radio and bootleg Arnold Schwarzenegget DVDS. He couldn't contain his glee at meeting someone from outside the warfare that had been his weather for 17 years. "Hey, man," he said, grinning.

In Mogadishu, Iftin often sported American hip-hop fashions: a hoodie, a backward-turned ball cap, baggy jeans. It was a political statement, an act of rebellion--and of terrible yearning. Al-Shabab's illiterate gunmen yank men without Islamic beards off buses and beat them. In the south, they flog women who wear bras. They stone people. They cut off heads.

Iftin defied them, and he did it by learning. He took business administration courses. (Somehow, two universities still function in Mogadishu.) He drilled his private students in English grammar. He was also a prodigious e-mailer, possessing the soul of a great diarist. After I wrote an article about Iftin for a U.S. magazine in 2009, he began recording dispatches for a public radio station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, about his surreal days in what is one of the world's most dangerous cities. In his slangy reports, he documented how a self-contained civil war had metastasized into an international jihadi bull run after the 2006 Ethiopian invasion. He described losing his girlfriend to emigration. He reported that his mud-walled house got stomped by a grenade; the shrapnel holes in his tin roof, he said, shone like stars.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

By the summer of 2010, Iftin's mother had had enough. She plodded to a vast refugee camp outside Mogadishu. Iftin gave up, too--only he went farther. Like at least i million others, he joined Somalia's swelling international diaspora.

Eastleigh slum in Nairobi, where I found Iftin again, is nicknamed "Little Mogadishu." Hotels sheathed in smoked glass--built, the residents whisper, with loot from the epidemic of Somali piracy--squat amid mounds of filth. There are wire-transfer offices and the "Heltz" driving academy. Sewage pools like tar. Women wear hijabs. Open-mouthed young men throng trucks bringing in khat, the chewable narcotic. Iftin marveled at all the unarmed people. But Eastleigh has its own dangers. "There is no freedom of speech here," he told me in his tenement cubbyhole. "The Shabab I saw in Mogadishu are here too."

Iftin wore a clean shirt for our reunion. A poster was tacked to his wall, a still life of fruit on a table. Out in the roofed courtyard of the honeycombed building, laundry hung in tiers, five stories high, as in an African prison. Refugees, crouching over charcoal braziers in the halls, stared warily up at me.

"They must go," huffed my taxi driver, an old Nairobi hand named Joseph, referring to the Somalis. "They are taking over. They push up the prices of property and control too much!" Joseph refused to park while I visited Iftin. Instead, he circled the block, fuming, with his windows rolled up.




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When fire is cried and danger is neigh,
"God and the firemen" is the people's cry;
But when 'tis out and all things righted,
God is forgotten and the firemen slighted.
~Author unknown, from The Fireman's Journal, October 18, 1879

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