Eastern Kenya living in fear of Somali Islamists
Fear of Islamist rebels grips this region close to the Somali border, a fear heightened by the abduction last week of two Spanish aid workers from a refugee camp.
Police officers, some on foot, others in Landcruisers, the only vehicles that can negotiate these tracks after heavy rain, fan out over all the trails that lead into Somalia as two helicopters hover overhead.
"We're trying to find the two Spanish women who were kidnapped," explained Philip Ndolo, deputy police chief of North East Province.
"We've patrolled in Dadaab, then in Kulan, in Damajaley; we've been to Liboi and to Hattar (on the Somali border), but we haven't found them."
In all of these towns, the police chief, accompanied by some 20 officers, has gathered the residents together to ask for information and and have received contradictory answers.
"We ask questions but we've no way of knowing who is telling the truth and who isn't because the Shebab Islamists have the support of some Somali refugees and also of some Kenyans of Somali origin," said one of his officers who said he has "exchanged fire with Shebab on several occasions" in the region.
This region of dense thorny scrub is inhabited mainly by Kenyans who are indigenous ethnic Somalis.
They have been joined by several generations of Somalis who, since the opening of the Dadaab refugee camps in 1991, have been fleeing war and famine in their country.
The vast majority of the inhabitants, their faces emaciated, say they have been forgotten by Nairobi.
"The Shebab have informers and accomplices everywhere," a local administrator in Liboi told AFP.
The administrator, a traditional Somali wrap around his waist, explained that many residents "live in fear and dread of the Shebab."
Explaining why he did not want to be named he said he had once been woken up by the Shebab in the middle of the night.
"They asked me what I had said in a meeting. Since then I've been careful," he said.
But fear of the Shebab can be felt well beyond the swathe of land the Kenyan police are searching.
It extends as far as the camps in Dadaab some 90 kilometres (50 miles) west of the Somali border, where the international aid workers helping the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees lock themselves up once night falls.
"Everyone is scared. No one sets foot outside after dusk," said Mwangi, another police officer.
"Even during the daytime those who want to go out have to either get a police escort or pay money to bandits and Shebab," he said pointing to the remains of a truck burned along with its cargo of sugar a month ago between Dadaab and Liboi because its proprietor refused to pay "the taxes."
Whatever the actual subject of a conversation in this region, the name of the Shebab comes up constantly - a threat that seems to hang in the air.
In Ifo, one of the camps in the Dadaab complex, Ahmed, a 34-year-old refugee, relates how the "Shebab" came in broad daylight and snatched the two white women in front of dozens of people and then went away again with total impunity.
"The Shebab are like devils. We don't know exactly where they are. They're invisible but they're watching us. They're always present and they can strike at any time," he muttered with concern.
22-year-old Abdi Afey boldly identified himself then said: "Someone gets killed here every day. Some people say it's bandits, others say it's Shebab."
"Everything is going to change now," said a police officer. "Our army has crossed into Somalia and since Friday has been inflicting heavy losses on the Shebab enemies, notably in Dhobley."
Ahmed seemed unconvinced.
"Even if we chase them from all the towns in Somalia, the Shebab are already within our midst and there's nothing we can do about it," he said, resigned.
© 2011 AFP