/ 27 September 2004

Drugs flood Kenya coast

Watching his brother “waste into death” as heroin finally broke his emaciated, convulsing body didn’t turn Abdullswamad Nassir (30). Neither did the late-night caller who threatened to murder the radio presenter’s family, after he’d pleaded with his community to “fight” the drug lords who have transformed Kenya’s pristine coast into a “graveyard”.

“It was the moment I heard what had happened to a girl I knew, that I turned,” said Nassir.

The “very thin, but beautiful” young woman had arrived at his studio one night. Begging for help, she explained in detail what she had allowed “many men” to do to her, in exchange for a daily fix of “brown sugar” (heroin).

Nassir made a few calls. But the rehabilitation centres in Mombasa were adamant: they could only cater for male addicts, females caused “problems”.

“I felt helpless. Empty. Like I did when Ahmed [his elder brother] died,” Nassir whispered.

Then, a few days later, her naked body was found in an alley in the Old Town.

“Informers told me the girl needed a fix, but she had no money. So the dealers gave her a choice: sex with them, or no heroin,” Nassir said. “While they were having sex with her, she was trying to inject herself. But because these men were pumping her continuously, she kept on missing the veins … so she bled a lot. When she did hit a vein, she injected too much, she overdosed. ”

Disgusted, torn by guilt and fury, Nassir formed Youth against Crime and Drugs (Yacad), an organisation based on South Africa’s notorious vigilantes, People against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad).

“Yes, we took our lead from Pagad,” said Nassir. “But I want to be clear that we are a disciplined organisation. We will not turn out like they did.”

Kenya’s Yacad is desperate not to be associated with extremism.

“We are not fundamentalist terror- ists, we are humanists!” maintained Mohammed Sheikh, leader of raids on “drug dens”. “That is why, even when the criminals threaten us, we do not fight back; we retreat. But we always return to make the arrest.”

Publicly, Kenya’s under-resourced, corruption-wracked police force condemns Yacad as vigilantes usurping the role of the law. Privately, senior police officers praise them.

“We are happy when they bring the criminals to us because we do not have the means to arrest all the drug people. Most of the time, we have no fuel for our vehicles; we have no cellphones; we have nothing,” said one.

Kenya also has no coast guard. The few boats patrolling the country’s vast coastline belong to the United States as part of its “war on terror”.

A senior policeman explained: “The heroin comes from Afghanistan and [mandrax] from India, to Somalia where there is no law at all, but also it comes straight to Mombasa, by dhows.

“Then the drug cargoes go by road to various countries, especially to South Africa. Informers tell us the criminals bribe the police at the border posts to let them through without searching their trucks.”

Said Nassir: “This is not Kenya’s problem; this is Africa’s problem! Mombasa is the closest major port on the continent to the Near East, where all these deadly drugs are produced. Once they reach Mombasa, they are ferried all over Africa.”

Kenya’s Muslims have developed a siege mentality. They feel assailed by the government’s sweeping anti-terror laws, which have seen some of them detained indefinitely.

“While our government spends millions on fighting terrorism, we are left alone to fight the war on drugs. There are whole villages here where you no longer hear the sound of kids, they are being killed by narcotics,” said Red Cross counsellor Hassan Musa.

Sheikh pointed out that “3 000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, but our research shows that at least 7 000 people on the coast alone are heroin addicts: that’s 7 000 probable deaths … but we get no help.”

Nassir admitted to a “temptation” to “take the fight a step further … but so far, we have been disciplined. As for the future, I cannot say what will happen because our people are angry: when you arrest one dealer, many others spring up, and the big fish just bribe the police and judges and carry on swimming … It hurts.”