I’m still reeling from the horrible tragedy that unfolded at Westgate Mall over the past week and I still can’t seem to fully process, much less articulate, the mix of emotions that many of us living in Nairobi (or like me, those who have just left) are feeling. There was fear, terror, sadness, a deeply numbing feeling of emptiness, and anger.
My friend Ian does a good job of summing up how I feel right now. But I think it will take a long time before I can articulate my feelings in any reasonable way. For now, it’s still just silent tears and this constant thrum of my heart beating, “Why? Why? Why?”
It now has been five days since the start of the attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. There was a sense of relief, for Erin and me at least, when the siege was declared over on Tuesday evening, although the information coming from the Kenyan government has been spotty and inconsistent, so who knows what was really going on and when it was really, definitively, over.
I imagine that someone will try to put together a comprehensive account of what has happened over the past several days inside the mall, and outside among the police, military and government officials who were trying to figure out what to do about it. I will certainly be interested to read it. Perhaps I’m too unforgiving, but the media here seem to just accept official government statements without pointing out inconsistencies or demanding more details. The official body count is probably going to rise – it doesn’t appear that any hostages were released or rescued towards the end, and we had kept hearing that there were still hostages inside. I’ve read that there are still 50-60 people unaccounted for – perhaps many of those were hostages. There are rumors that the position (or positions) established by the attackers inside the mall, defended by very large machine guns, were virtually impregnable and so the government detonated explosives underneath their position, collapsing several floors of the mall and killing the attackers and anyone held by them.
The whole episode is almost unimaginably awful and the sheer loss is just sickening. So many people dead, so many injured, so many who suffered the trauma of the attack and/or the trauma and heartbreak of losing a friend or family member. The dead were mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children, friends, colleagues. A young guy who Erin knew through work was among those killed – we had brunch with him early in our time here, and Erin would bump into him periodically – and by all accounts he was a wonderful and wonderfully talented person, working in Kenya because he cared about poverty and wanted to make a positive contribution to addressing it. A friend of his wrote a touching tribute here:
But all of the lives lost are tragic, regardless of who they were and what they did. Erin and I had a really pleasant evening at Westgate the night before the attack – had dinner with some friends and debated going to the casino before winding up eating frozen yogurt and chatting until 11:30pm. (I know, we get CRAZY when we go out!) I hope our waiter that night, as well as the woman cleaning the floor as we were leaving the mall, are OK. Little did we know that, somewhere in the mall that night, there was already a stash of machine guns and ammunition that would be used to such horrific effect the next day.
I think a lot of us here in Nairobi are still in a state of shock to a greater or lesser degree – having trouble believing that the images are real and that it all actually happened. It’s terrifying to see those images at a place you know well and have gone pretty regularly. And while, yeah, we were there the night before, we know someone who was at the mall shopping until 45 minutes before the attack started. A couple of other people were planning to go but didn’t for whatever reason. I’m grateful that we weren’t there, but it’s chilling to think that we could have been and what we might have experienced, what could have happened.
I don’t know what living in Nairobi is going to be like in the aftermath of this. I wish I could be coldly rational about the risk here – now is probably the safest time to go hang out at a mall or outdoor cafe. It’s probably later, after time has passed and we’ve been lulled back into complacency, that another attack or incident is more likely. But I think it’s probably human nature to want to hunker down now, and then venture out more when the coast appears clear.
And the drive to the mall must still be, statistically, vastly more risky than the time spent at the mall itself. One thing I try to keep in mind is that many Kenyans live their lives every day facing a huge amount of risk – daily commutes in reckless matatus, robbery and assault in dangerous neighborhoods, disease, violent conflict between tribes in some of the remote regions of the country. In a way, the shock and fear I feel in the aftermath of Westgate simply gives me a better understanding of the life experience of many Kenyans who, unlike me and my family, don’t live behind a heavily protected compound wall.
But it’s having kids here that really makes me crazy in thinking about all this. (Makes me more than my usual amount of crazy, I should say.) So much of what I love about living in Nairobi is an environment that I think is good for my children – how K is cared for by a wonderful Kenyan woman, how A goes to school with kids from Kenya, Japan, Denmark, and a number of other countries. Our kids are so little that all this probably has no impact whatsoever, but it’s such a pleasant thought that they’re absorbing lessons in tolerance, color blindness and cultural acceptance by living in this atmosphere. But would we risk too much by staying here? How much risk is too much risk? How do you even know how much risk you are actually in? There are random shootings in public places all over the US, with increasing and frightening frequency, it seems – you can’t be completely safe anywhere, so are we really at so much more risk living here? (The answer is probably yes, but I still think it’s a valid question.)
I’ve already shared this piece on Facebook, but here it is again:
I appreciated that the author emphasized the silver lining of this awful event – that Kenyans, who often identify much more closely with their tribe (Kikuyu, Maasai, Luo, Luhya, Kamba, Kalenjin, etc.) than with their nation, really seemed to take this attack as an assault on the entire country and mobilized to help each other in a way that seems pretty rare here. It was really moving to go give blood on Sunday and see the crowd that was there with me at the hospital for the same reason. And I was moved by the images of plainclothes police officers moving through the mall immediately after the attack, helping people get out safely with only their puny handguns to protect them against the military-grade firepower of the attackers.
Of course, I saw an interview today with a guy who was in many of these photos – turns out he wasn’t a police officer, but only a civilian who carries a gun and took it upon himself to go inside (his brother had been having a meeting at Westgate when the attack took place). I read that many of those responding initially may not have been police, but just vigilantes who went in and tried to help. Brave, I guess, but if true, where were the cops?
Still, there were elements of the emergency response that seemed pretty impressive, at least in context. (This is the same city, remember, that let its international airport burn down because the fire trucks at the airport lacked water and trucks coming from elsewhere to respond to the fire got stuck in traffic.)
I probably shouldn’t call the civic response a silver lining, though. Everything about this is a deeply felt, tragic loss, and I’m only at the periphery. I can only imagine what victims and their families are going through.