Curfew in Paradise

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I hadn’t been back to Lamu since early July, shortly after the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for massacring up to 60 people in villages on the mainland.

A businessman from a well Koen political family whom I’d met in Nairobi  for the first time recently winced when I told him I spend a lot of time in Lamu. I reminded him that the attacks took place in Mpekatoni on the mainland, not in Lamu town or anywhere on Lamu Island. He still looked at me like I was barking. Granted, Mpekatoni and Lamu Island aren’t exactly oceans apart; the distance between them is a little over 15 miles in total with only a few kilometers of water in between.

The region was only just recovering from an earlier mishap; in 2011 unknown assailants from Somalia kidnapped two tourists and murdered a third from beachfront hotels in the Lamu Archipelago. These abductions as well as of those of aid workers in Somalia and in northern Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp precipitated Kenya’s US-backed invasion of Somalia in October the same year.

Unfortunately for Lamu, Kiwayu and most recently Mpekatoni and the other towns where the various attacks took place fall within Lamu County, meaning that while not a drop of blood was spilled in or on Lamu town its main industry tourism has tanked all the same.

It couldn’t happen to a more beautiful area.

Lamu residents both European and local like to think that what happened at Mpekatoni as a mainland thing. Why? Because it’s a land issue.

Both Al Shabaab and the Kenya government would seem to have motives for getting rid of Muslims and to not care as much about the tourist industry as the security.

Yet people fail to call it a terrorist attack.

The distance between Lamu Island and Mpekatoni where the most deaths occurred.
No blood was spilled on the island police enforced a curfew there that has further crippled an already ailing tourist economy.  Authorities believe some of the Mpekatoni attackers may have been from Lamu town. Islanders say they feel the curfew is less security related and  more punitive measure aimed at vilifying the Muslim community.

Regardless, the island seemed as empty as I had found Mpekatoni shortly after the massacre.
A white Kenyan, tall with a pony-tail and a bushy white beard, has made Lamu island his home since the late 60’s. He said he’d never seen the usually popular tourist destination so dead – even after the 2011 tourist kidnappings. “This is a record”.

Not only is it strangling the economy but furthers labels the area a hotbed of insurgency – a “no go zone”.

“Why punish us when this happened on the mainland?,” ask some locals. While other residents have a ready answer. Some suggest that the arrest of Lamu elected governor Issa Timamy was an attempt by the current Jubilee administration to overthrow Timamy. Political instability, they feel, is a convenient tool for those in power with an interest in controlling an area with valuable land around the Lamu port.
Following the Mpekatoni attacks police imposed a 9pm-6am curfew on islanders.

Locals also report instances of theft during curfew hours. One section of the island went without power for more than 24 hours after 800 metres of power cable was stolen.
What’s most unfortunate for Lamu islanders is that massacre occurred in Mpekatoni a small town some thirty miles from Lamu town.

Categories: Conflict In Context - Field NotesTags: ,

Margot Kiser | Conflict in Context

I am a Kenya-based American correspondent, focusing on conflict in East Africa. I have contributed to Newsweek, Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, among others.

Follow me on Twitter: @margotkiser1

Best long read ByLiner 2011 for my Newsweek feature, 'Pirates in Paradise' http://byliner.com/margot-kiser/stories
http://www.newsweek.com/authors/margot-kiser

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