Nairobi - Bustling with business, Eastleigh's district is dubbed “little Mogadishu” after the anarchic capital of Somalia, where so many here fled from for a new, more peaceful life.
But the largely ethnic Somali and vibrant economic hub faces tough times after a string of attacks blamed on Islamist militants, with the community battered by a harsh police crackdown to root out a hard core of insurgents.
“Ethnic Somalis, irrespective of which passport they carry, have become a target for armed thugs across Kenya,” said Abdi Aynte, an independent analyst, and himself a Somali who spends much time in Kenya.
Kenya has suffered a series of attacks — including grenade and bomb explosions — regularly pinned on members or sympathisers of Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab.
But heavy handed crackdowns risk alienating both ethnic Somali Kenyans and refugees, many of whom fled war-torn Somalia to escape the extremist rule of the same militants they are now viewed as potential backers of.
“The people of Eastleigh are first attacked by bombs, and then mistreated by security forces, who round up people and arrest them indiscriminately,” said businessman Mohamed Hirsi, who imports perfume.
On dusty, bumpy streets hemmed in by high rise buildings, crowds haggle at street markets selling fried spicy snacks, heaps of bananas and piles of melons, with traders from across East Africa coming to Eastleigh to strike deals.
Last week two separate attacks — a roadside bomb and a grenade hurled into a mosque — killed six, while last month a bomb on a bus that killed nine people sparked violent anti-Somali demonstrations.
“The people of Eastleigh are first attacked by bombs, and then mistreated by security forces, who round up people and arrest them indiscriminately”
Kenya hosts over 516,000 Somali refugees, the vast majority in the world’s largest refugee camp complex of Dadaab in the remote northeast.
But more than 2.3 million Kenyans are ethnic Somalis, some six percent of the population. Their traditional homelands make up around a fifth of the country.
They also form a key part of the economy, with the estimated 500,000 people working in Eastleigh paying over $23 million in taxes a month, according to official figures, and acting as the hub for much of the commerce from Somalia.
Kenya invaded Somalia last year to attack Al Shabaab bases, prompting dire warnings of revenge. But while a wider military offensive has put the Shebab in Somalia on the backfoot, the community here are viewed with suspicion.
“Fear, guilt by association and a sense of ‘otherness’ have now enveloped the millions of Somalis living in the country, all of which is good news for Al-Shebab,” Aynte added.
Such issues are not contained to Eastleigh alone. Kenya’s northeastern Somali regions have also seen a wave of attacks against security forces, prompting crackdowns and reprisal raids, according to Human Rights Watch.
Kenyan officials have spoken openly about wanting to return Somali refugees back to their homeland.
“It is terrible… we left Somalia because of insecurity there, but now we face the same problems here in Kenya,” said one Somali refugee running a small business in Eastleigh, who asked not to be named.
After recent attacks, police have launched mass arrests of those without proper papers.
“I had to pay to get my son released, he had no involvement in any attack but they arrested him,” the refugee added.
Some have fled Eastleigh back to refugee camps near the Somali border, such as Halima Juma, whose husband was beaten by angry crowds in Nairobi.
“All our belongings were stolen, we are in a desperate situation” she said, now back living in the Dadaab camp.
No group have claimed responsibility for the attacks, while Shabaab spokesman Abdiaziz Abu Musab has condemned the killings, telling AFP they are “the acts of non-Muslims.”
Alienating Kenya’s Somali community brings with it multiple risks.
“I had to pay to get my son released, he had no involvement in any attack but they arrested him.”
Tensions are already high across the country ahead of elections due in March, five years after deadly post-poll killings that shattered Kenya’s image as a beacon of regional stability.
“Al-Shabaab has in the past exploited the Somali people when they have felt most victimised,” Aynte added. “Already, the Shabaab’s effective propaganda machine is hard at work, trying to turn a largely unsuspecting community into a hostile unit.”
As elections approach, an angry Kenyan Somali population will be one more area of concern, adding to separate issues including a separatist movement on the coast, militant Islamists and tensions between ethnic groups.
“Kenya looks even more divided and susceptible to outbreaks of violence than it did in 2007,” David Throup wrote in a recent report for the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.