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Kenya’s coronavirus curfew begins with wave of police crackdowns

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 29/03/2020 Max Bearak, Rael Ombuor

a group of people walking down a street: Ferry passengers flee from police firing tear gas on March, 27, 2020 in Mombasa, Kenya, after new virus curfew measures were imposed © AP Ferry passengers flee from police firing tear gas on March, 27, 2020 in Mombasa, Kenya, after new virus curfew measures were imposed NAIROBI —Kenya's dusk-to-dawn curfew was intended to encourage social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Instead, security forces unleashed beatings and tear gas, injuring dozens of people, potentially exposing many more to the virus and damaging public trust in the government's strategy to contain the outbreak.

In cities across Kenya, policemen and other uniformed officers used their boots and batons in a brutal crackdown — with some incidents caught on video — seemingly carried out to drive home the seriousness of the curfew measure that took effect Friday.

Pictures: Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak around the world

But witnesses and others caught in the clashes describe indiscriminate attacks by security forces and detention tactics that crowded people together in violation of social distancing protocols. 

In one instance, footage showed dozens of people detained on the ground, practically on top of each other. In other video clips, hundreds of people were corralled into tight spaces as officers approached, weapons brandished. A woman was shoved to the ground by a uniformed man; nearby, another vomited because of the tear gas.

Much of the police brutality was not captured on video but recounted by victims and witnesses. 

Kenya has confirmed 38 cases of COVID-19 as of Saturday, though testing has been slow to ramp up, potentially masking the extent of the virus’s spread here. The country has precious few intensive care units. The chaos on Friday offered a grim look at how drastic measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak could spark social unrest, and even spread the virus. 

The worst violence was reported in the coastal city of Mombasa, where security forces descended upon a mass of commuters who were gathered at a ferry crossing about an hour before curfew, hoping to take the last trip across a channel to a largely working-class neighbourhood.

“You could see the fury in them as they asked us to lie down on the ground. And then they started beating us, one blow after another. Then came the tear gas canisters,” said Ahmed Swaleh Hassan, 26, a father of two who works at a printing press.

What ensued was a mix of frenzy and awful stillness, Hassan recalled. He saw officers beating two old men mercilessly, while next to them three women lay flat on the ground, not moving.

“If there was one person with the virus in that crowd, where I was lying, where we were piled on top of each other, then all of us have the coronavirus right now and it is the government that has made us contract that virus,” Hassan said in an interview. “They were not protecting us. They were killing us.” 

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Bernard Mogesa, who leads the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights, a government oversight body, called the police action “pitiable and despicable.”

“In this instance, the police officers are in total breach of peace, failed to protect the innocent and their actions have the potential of further spreading the novel coronavirus,” he said. 

The spokesman for the National Police Service, Charles Owino, said he regretted the violence that took place but placed blame squarely on the public. He accused some people of provoking the crackdown by throwing stones at officers.

“It was total disregard for the law, total indiscipline . . . what members of the public did was totally wrong,” he said in an interview with Kenya’s Citizen TV. “They refused to follow instructions, they threw stones at policemen — all the same, the policemen should show some form of restraint. But first of all I have to particularly blame members of the public.”

Kenya’s health minister, Mutahi Kagwe, appealed for people to stay at home.

“I am also urging the police that people must be treated humanely,” Kagwe said.

Many of those who were injured in Mombasa were bystanders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mishi Rajab Abdalla, 46, was taking her 2-year-old son to the hospital for an appointment to manage his hydrocephalus, a condition where fluid builds up in the skull and causes the brain to swell.

“Out of nowhere it was a stampede. I fell down on top of the baby, and that’s when they beat me all over with their clubs,” she said through tears on Saturday. “My baby was in great pain.”

Abdalla said that to comply with curfew, she then rushed her child to a small clinic where he was prescribed painkillers. She can’t afford the private hospitals and is already worried about her income because of the curfew.

More than eight out of 10 workers in Kenya — and across Africa — work in the informal sector, which in most cases means earning no fixed salary. Working from home isn’t an option for those who make their living cleaning other people’s houses, driving motorcycle taxis, or selling food on the roadside.

For many, the imposition of a curfew added to the daily chaos of commuting, which was already hampered by the arrival of torrential rains across Kenya. Most Kenyans travel in privately owned minivan taxis called matatus, which also must be off the streets by dusk. Many matatu drivers either stayed home on Friday, or raised their fares, taking advantage of people desperate to get home. 

Silas, 35, a call centre worker who didn’t share his full name for fear of losing his job, said he left his office three hours before curfew went into effect to give himself enough time to get home. But outside his office, there weren’t any matatus. He and hundreds of others walked toward downtown Nairobi, where queues for transport were blocks long.

“I didn’t even get close to the front of the queue by 7 o’clock, and that’s when the police came in with their sticks and whips and started chasing us and beating us,” he said. “The police shouted at us, saying, ‘We gave you enough time, why are you still outside?’ They wouldn’t listen. So many people were walking on the streets. It was a massive crowd. Isn’t this how the disease is spread?” 

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