Published on 23 Sep 2013

What if? The Nairobi terror attack that feels very close to home

We spend our lives covering disasters in other people’s countries, but this one is very close to home.

We spend our lives covering disasters in other people’s countries, but this one is very close to home. I lived in Nairobi for seven years back in the 1980s. I come here all the time. My friends are here. I meet them for coffee at Westgate, the shopping mall that was attacked by gunmen – and possibly gunwomen – on Saturday.

Today I watched a plume of black smoke pouring from the roof of the shopping centre. The government said that the terrorists, who are still believed to be holding hostages, had set fire to mattresses in the supermarket Nakumatt, to stop soldiers from entering through the roof.

Some people are talking about this being a tragedy for the Kenyan middle class and expatriates, people like me who would shop in Nakumatt and have lunch at the Art Caffe opposite: but Kenyans who work in the mall have also lost their lives.

A waitress I met this morning at a neighbouring shopping mall said: “So many of our friends were killed. We cannot believe what happened.”

One of my friends was in Westgate with her eight year old daughter, paying the dentist when she heard gunshots. “I didn’t see who was shooting but I saw people falling down dead,” she said. She covered her daughter’s eyes and hustled her into the dental clinic, where they locked themselves in, turned off the lights and hunkered down for four hours, listening to gunfire, until they were rescued. On the way out, she saw three bodies.

“I thought I had had a bad time until I realised that other people are in there still,” she said. “Now I feel lucky.”

Others I spoke to today feel similarly.

“My brother said that God doesn’t want me with him yet,” said Abdul Rehman, who was in Westgate sorting out cash and cheques for his employer. He fled as a car screeched up at the front and men leapt out, firing. I asked him what they looked like. “I didn’t look behind me,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m still here.”

As the siege continues, Kenyans fear that more victims remain inside. It’s not clear how many hostages are being held, nor how many dead or injured are still lying where they fell. But those who escaped are haunted by “what if…”

What if I’d gone to the supermarket where the attackers first entered instead of the clothes shop upstairs? What if I’d had coffee at Art Caffe where they shot so many, not Java on the fourth floor? Some believe God rescued them. Others do not know how to make sense of the arbitrary nature of fate which condemns some to an early violent death and lets others live.

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6 reader comments

  1. ann says:

    Watching C4 news waiting for LH to sympathise with terrorists killing Christians.

  2. Michael Wilkinson says:

    What if every person had the right to bear arms and protect themseves ?
    A different outcome I suspect

  3. Andrew Dundas says:

    Terrorists would find it much much harder to operate in Britain if we had ID Cards.

    Most people wanted to have ID Cards. We know over 130 million people enter our country every year and the number’s growing. Most are residents returning home. But we must check everyone.

    Lord Snooty and Cleggie cancelled the ID card project. Now we’re exposed!

  4. Jackie says:

    in reply to Andrew Dundas above: tragedies like the one at Westgate in Nairobi wouldn’t have been stopped by ID cards. if anything, terrorists who might choose to operate in Britain would have a field day with identity cards. These days, moat criminals are pretty computer-savvy. An ID card database would just present an irresistible temptation for identity theft by said terrorists, and other criminals. It would make Britain less secure, not more. This also seems like an irrelevant point to raise when discussing the awful events in Kenya.

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      Hello Jackie,
      You’re correct, GCHQ can unravel “secure” messages and encrypted messages. But it costs millions and much expertise so to do.
      It’d be very expensive for terrorists to attempt to modify UK databases of ID Cards. Photos that rely on facial shapes and measurements stored on remote servers are technically complex to fit up too.
      So, whilst in theory it’s technically feasible to spend vast amounts to subvert an ID Card system, why would a terrorist organisation bother? Cheaper and quicker to hit somewhere easier – like somewhere with an open land border.
      Our country is an island. We should exploit that advantage and insist on ID Cards.

  5. Mahad says:

    What if those countries supporting Al Shabaab & piracy stop doing so.

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