DADAAB, Kenya — It was only going to be a brief errand to pay a bill, so leaving her three-year-old son, Amen, with a neighbour wasn’t a big deal.
Three weeks later, Gelila Eyassu hadn’t seen her son because she was rounded up under the Kenyan government’s Usalama Watch and dumped in the world’s largest refugee camp.
Operation Usalama — the word is Swahili for safety — is targeting terrorists, but security forces are scooping up refugees and many Africans in Nairobi who don’t look Kenyan, even if they have legal documents allowing them to be there.
It’s the grim new reality in Kenya, the former British colony that has experienced a series of terrorist attacks since 2011. Last year, the Somalia-based militant group Al Shabaab was responsible for the bloodbath at Westgate Mall in upscale Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Al Shabaab struck again earlier this week, killing at least 49 people in raids on hotels and a police station in Mpeketoni.
Eyassu has been stranded at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees transit centre in Dadaab since the May 8 sweep. Dadaab, in the desert of northeastern Kenya not far from the Somali border, is home to more than 357,000 refugees. Many of them have been there since civil war broke out in Somalia more than 20 years ago, while drought and famine in 2011 drove tens of thousands more to the camps.
But in a chance meeting with a reporter visiting Dadaab on May 27, Eyassu pleaded her case.
"We are not refugees," said the well-spoken woman, who had the necessary documents to be living in Nairobi. "We’ve lived peacefully in Nairobi for nine years."
Eyassu, who has a sister who lives in Winnipeg, asked the Free Press to get the word out about what happened to her and hundreds of others trapped in Kenya’s crackdown.
At one point, an agent with Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs interrupted the interview to confirm the reporter had permission from the Kenyan government to be at the refugee camp.
While her neighbour is afraid to leave home in Nairobi out of fear of being apprehended, Eyassu is hundreds of kilometres away from her young son and is still reeling from the separation.
"I’m like a beggar here," said the Eritrean-born Eyassu. "I have no money. I can’t go back to Eritrea. I can’t go back to Nairobi."
Eyassu has a husband already in Canada and, in addition to the Winnipeg sister, a sister in Calgary. Her husband tried sponsoring her to come to Canada but can’t because his initial application didn’t say he was married.
"It was a communication problem," she said.
He’s trying to get her out of Dadaab on humanitarian and compassionate grounds and her sisters in Canada hope the Canadian government or Amnesty International will pressure the Kenyan government to help reunite her with her son.
"I was really sad because the baby is only three years old," said Tinbit Eyassu, her sister in Winnipeg.
She wanted to know how her sister in Dadaab seemed, how she looked and about the people around her where she’s staying.
"What can we do? We don’t know anything. Everybody’s just worried about her," said the shy, soft-spoken woman who only agreed to talk to the Free Press to raise awareness about her sister’s situation.
There are hundreds of innocent victims of the Usalama Watch living in limbo.
For three nursing mothers who left their infants at home to attend church, Usalama Watch tore their babies from their bosoms.
Toto Nyamahirwe was among 173 parishioners scooped up May 4 while attending Sunday morning services with her husband, Bonheur Muragwa, at Antioch Church in a suburb of Nairobi.
Their oldest child, Divine, 13, is left caring for her four younger siblings including Debola, a nursing infant.
"Our first-born is now a parent," her mother said, still shocked and upset.
Church member Marcel Mandela recalled police interrupting the sermon, telling the parishioners to go home and come back with their identity papers and residency permits to be verified.
"We co-operated — we believed them," said Mandela. "They verified our documents but said we are going to relocate you under a government directive."
They were taken to the police station. There was no water to drink, no food, no toilets and mothers were separated from babies. People with chronic health conditions weren’t allowed to get medication. After four days in the lockup, the church members demanded an explanation.
"We said ‘Tell us, are we criminals? If we are, then take us to court and it will decide — we’ll be issued a judgment and sentenced,’ " Mandela said. "They refused to explain our crime and where we’re going."
The churchgoers — including four pregnant women — were tear-gassed. They were taken to a sports stadium and put on seven big buses. The driver said "You are going to Dadaab," Mandela recalled.
That was terrifying news to the Christian churchgoers. They had heard it’s Muslim and full of Al Shabaab militants. Since arriving, they’ve been warned by the UNHCR and the Department of Refugee Affairs not to hold church services for their own safety, he said.
But in a crisis with nowhere to turn for help, they said they need their faith.
"We must pray. We’re human beings. We can’t forget our God. God can protect us," Mandela said.
The church members are Banyamulenge, a persecuted Tutsi tribe from the Congo. Tens of thousands have fled persecution, attacks and pogroms in their native country since 1996.
While the Kenyan government has carved out chunks of land to protect wildlife species, it’s the human populations that are at risk, Mandela said.
"We’re a minority tribe in Congo and one day our grandfathers fear our population will disappear. We’re an endangered species."