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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