By Victoria Brittain (THE GUARDIAN, 01/03/07):
How does a young man from west London find himself landed in a Kenyan police station, hanging from his wrists, his feet tied to buckets of freezing water? How does he find himself, soon after, being dined by MI5 officers at a Nairobi hotel one moment, then imprisoned underground in the desert the next? The story of Shahajan Janjua, a British Asian, is a little window into the “war on terror”. As with the cases of the three young men from Tipton who ended up in Guantánamo Bay, MI5 officials in this case showed themselves apparently incapable of making a judgment of young British Asian men’s likely links to terrorism. So, another has come back from an innocent overseas trip traumatised. Would it have happened if he had been white and middle-class?
The backstory is to be found across Kenya’s eastern border, in Somalia. That country’s state weakness, acute poverty, and strategic position on the Red Sea made it a handy client for both sides in the cold war. In 1993, 18 US soldiers were killed there in an ill-advised UN mission. Subsequent years of warlordism and state collapse were ignored abroad. Then, last year, came six months of peace under the Union of Islamic Courts. The US responded recklessly, instigating – and aiding with spy satellites and a special operations unit – an Ethiopian attack that involved airpower and 15,000 troops. The Islamic government was brought down in days. Needless to say, it was all cast as a war against terrorism.
On Christmas Day, Janjua was in Mogadishu for the wedding of a childhood friend to a Somali woman. He was the only guest from London. Janjua, a young man who had put a troubled inner-city past behind him, planned to leave the country on December 31, stopping over in Dubai to see friends before returning to London to celebrate his 22nd birthday in January.
But he fainted at the wedding on Christmas Day, and was admitted to hospital with malaria. Mogadishu was under bombardment, and his passport was stolen. Within days he was taken from the hospital, still linked to his drip, and put in a van with cans of tuna, a gravely wounded Zimbabwean on a stretcher, another wounded Somali, and foreign fighters. It was a grim two-day trip to the southern port city of Kismayo, where the Islamic Courts were still in control and the streets seethed with men carrying AK-47s.
When Janjua was offered the chance to head for the Kenyan border, he leapt at it, desperate as he was to find a British consulate. Still weak from malaria, he was put in one of two crowded vans along with the two wounded men.
The border was closed and they split into three groups to walk. As an argument broke out about carrying the stretcher case, the Zimbabwean took a direct hit from Ethiopian troops. Janjua saw a Tunisian and Swede dead, too. Everyone ran. Janjua’s group of 13 then began a two-week walk with no food and only muddy water to drink. After two days, during which time he heard them speak nothing but Arabic, he discovered that three were British.
They were arrested by the Kenyan military after villagers turned them in. Janjua was smashed in the face with a rifle and his nose fractured. In police cells in Nairobi those in authority assaulted and interrogated him. Next he was taken to expensive hotels and quizzed by six different British MI5 officials. They showed him pictures of British men he mostly did not recognise, and asked him repeatedly: “Who sent you? Who funded you? Who are your friends? Which mosque did you go to?”
His lucky break came when he persuaded a Kenyan policewoman to lend him her phone and alerted lawyers in London. Kenyan lawyers then tried to visit the prison, but were not allowed in. MI5 had ample time to confirm his account of his visit to Somalia, but on February 2, police in London were telling his family that he had been caught on the Kenyan/Somali border with guns.
Janjua and three other British men were flown back to Somalia and held for three days in an underground desert cell. Then he was flown back to Kenya, and on to London, where he was questioned by police, but not charged. It should all be over, but he has nightmares and headaches, and is haunted by the men he left in Kenyan or Somali jails. He, and they, are yet more casualties in a mindless, misbegotten “war on terror” which the US and Britain cannot win militarily.