Westgate Mall: Kenya’s symbol of economic strength succumbs to terror

Ryan Kohls was in the mall an hour before the shooting began

Siegfried Modola / Reuters

Ruhila Adatia was six months pregnant with her first child. She had just found out it was a baby girl and she was ecstatic. Adatia, a successful radio and TV presenter in Nairobi, was newly married and ready to challenge broadcast stereotypes by becoming a mother. Her colleagues described her as “vibrant” and “inspirational.”

On Sept. 21, Adatia was at Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall, preparing to host a children’s cooking program for 33 kids called Sungold Sunrice Superchef. Shortly before the show went on air, al-Shabab militants stormed the rooftop and sprayed bullets and grenades into the crowd. Adatia was hit in the leg. She bled to death before receiving treatment at a nearby hospital. She was 31 years old. “She was a blessed soul,” says Bernice Wairima, a producer who worked alongside Adatia. “This makes you ask, ‘Why, God?’ ”

An hour before the brutal attack on Westgate Mall, I was there, waiting in line at Barclays bank. Westgate is a popular mall for wealthy Kenyans and the vast expat community in Nairobi. The mall opened in 2007 in the affluent Westlands neighbourhood of the city and stood as a symbol of Kenya’s economic strength in east Africa: a four-storey shopping centre with shiny marble floors, glass elevators and more than 80 high-end retail stores. For many in the bustling city, it was an oasis, an excursion away from Nairobi’s congested streets, a place to enjoy good coffee and free Wi-Fi.

I’ve been to Westgate hundreds of times. Last Saturday was a typical morning. The mall was lively, clean and teeming with people. Turns out, that’s what made Westgate an easy, and perfect, target for a large-scale terrorist attack.

At around 11 a.m., between 10 to 14 al-Shabab gunmen pulled up in vehicles, opened fire, and entered the mall from the front doors and rooftop parking lot. Early reports described the attackers as thieves, but it became apparent there was no exit strategy for this group. The attack quickly turned into a hostage situation. Hundreds of shoppers were lucky to escape as the chaos began. These witnesses recounted haunting tales of kids being shot at point-blank range and others being singled out and asked questions about the Qu’ran. Those who failed to answer correctly were executed.

Within the first 48 hours, more than 60 people were confirmed dead and hundreds injured. Two were Canadian: 29-year-old diplomat Annemarie Desloges and Vancouver-based businessman Naguib Damji. The siege would go on to last more than four days, consist of hundreds of violent exchanges and focus the world’s attention on Nairobi’s fight against terrorism. At the time of writing, the official body count was 67, but it is likely to rise considerably higher.

The group behind the brazen assault, al-Shabab, is a jihadist militia that has been battling for control of Somalia—and carrying out terror attacks at home and abroad—for the past seven years. The name, which translates to “the youth” or “the boys,” speaks of their youthful recruits. Originally operating as soldiers for Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a hardline Islamic faction that took over much of Somalia in 2006, they morphed into a separate fighting force after Ethiopian troops helped oust the UIC and install a new and friendlier transitional federal government. In recent years, al-Shabab members, or sympathizers, have been linked to attempted attacks in Australia and Denmark. And in the summer of 2010, the group took responsibility for two car bombs that targeted crowds that had gathered to watch a television broadcast of the final of soccer’s World Cup in Kampala, Uganda, killing 74 and wounding 70. The group has suffered a number of defeats and its numbers have dwindled since the Kenyan military began to intervene in Somalia in 2011. But foreign fighters have rallied to al-Shabab’s cause, and what remains of the group forged a formal alliance with al-Qaeda in 2012. They pose a considerable threat to Kenya because of its close proximity to Somalia. And in recent years, Nairobi has experienced several al-Shabab grenade attacks. Saturday’s slaughter, however, is by far the largest offensive the city has seen. It also fulfilled long-held suspicions that al-Shabab was planning to attack soft targets in Nairobi.

As such targets go, this one was seemingly perfect: On a sunny Saturday, the mall was filled with predominantly wealthy people—both local and foreign—and if attacked, would frighten the entire city while deterring potential tourists.

The brazen nature of not just the attack, but the articulation of the reasons behind it, says much about al-Shabab, which used social media and media interviews even as the attack was under way to deliver its side of the story to the public.

Several hours after the siege began, @HSMPress, an account verified by several journalists as being tied to al-Shabab, sent this tweet: “The message we are sending to the Kenyan govt & Public is and has always been just one: remove all your forces from our country #Westgate.” The hashtag went on to provide a bizarre form of live tweet to the massacre.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, a spokesman for the group explained with chilling matter-of-factness why al-Shabab attacked a place full of civilians: “It is a place where tourists from across the world come to shop, where diplomats gather. It is a place where Kenya’s decision-makers go to relax and enjoy themselves,” said Sheikh Abulaziz Abu Muscab, al-Shabab’s spokesman for military operations. “Westgate is a place where there are Jewish and American shops. So we have to attack them.”

When the massacre started, I had just left the mall and was attending the Storymoja Hay literary festival. As I arrived at the auditorium to hear Nigerian author Teju Cole speak, my phone started lighting up with texts from concerned friends. When the talk finished, the crowd poured out and called their loved ones. Overhead was the loud sound of military helicopters starting to circle the mall. The next day, it was reported that one of the authors at the festival, Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, was killed. On Thursday, I had watched Awoonor receive a warm welcome at the festival’s opening ceremony. Now he was dead. His son, Afetfi, also in the mall, was injured and in shock.

Nairobi is a city of three million people and everyone seemed to know someone inside. Not only had I just seen Awoonor alive, but for three months, I’d been working in the same office building as Ruhila Adatia. I’d never met her, but likely passed her in the hall numerous times. Several other familiar faces—producers at the radio station and administrative assistants—who greeted me each morning at the Lion Place offices with a smile and handshake were also shot and injured. Andrew Lucheli is a 25-year-old cleaner in the office where I work. He was helping Adatia set up for the kid’s cooking program at Westgate. A bullet entered and exited his right leg during the onslaught.

On Monday afternoon, 48 hours after the attack began, a cloud of black smoke rose from Westgate. Several hundred people were gathered nearby the cordoned-off area close to the mall. The police began firing tear-gas grenades. There had been heavy exchanges between al-Shabab and the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF). Hundreds of explosions rattled the area. The crowd just stood and watched Westgate burn. Johnson Gacheru, a local resident, said, “This is the worst thing I’ve seen since 1998. They’re trying to destroy our country.”

I was in Nairobi in 1998 when al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy, killing more than 200. I was 13 and heard the blast from a friend’s house. On this day, 15 years later, watching the billowing cloud of smoke, the same fear was palpable.

Late that evening, I attended a memorial for Awoonor, the slain poet. His poetry took on a new poignancy, with such lines as, “The universe is created out of music. The tragedy with humans is that we have stopped listening.” The literary festival that had started with excitement just a few days ago now ended with a eulogy.

As the standoff hit its fourth day, smoke still streamed from Westgate and heavy firing was reported, but by mid-evening, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, announced on national TV that the seige was over and declared three days of national mourning. “We have shamed and defeated our attackers,” he said.

It will be weeks before a clearer picture of what transpired at Westgate emerges. After the stories of heroic acts and heinous crimes, the national conversation will shift to how much it hurt the country’s economy and international reputation.

As for me, the face of the bank teller who served me at Barclays, just hours before the attack, is etched in my mind. I’m not sure if she’s dead or alive.

Ryan Kohls is a Canadian journalist based in Nairobi.

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