Reflections on the Westgate tragedy

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Children and adults alike take refuge behind a vehicle during the assault on the Nairobi shopping centre
Children and adults alike take refuge behind a vehicle during the assault on the Nairobi shopping centre
Children and adults alike take refuge behind a vehicle during the assault on the Nairobi shopping centre

With the famous bubble-effect of St Andrews, I often find myself learning about news of the outside world through Facebook and Twitter. Turning to my trusty social media sources as usual this past Saturday, I noticed that they were flooded with unusually high levels of traffic. As I navigated my way through posts and tweets alike, I came to learn that, much to my horror, the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya was at the mercy of a terrorist attack led by Al-Shabaab, the Somali-based Islamist group.

Despite catastrophic acts of terrorism happening during my lifetime, never before had an attack felt so real. Although born and bred in London, Kenya and especially Nairobi is somewhere I consider my second home. My parents both grew up there and many members of my extended family still live there. With such familial ties coupled with the country’s extraordinary and dynamic natural beauty, I’m always trying to find an excuse to return whenever the chance arises. Having visited the city so many times and only as recently as two months ago, I found myself shaking to the core.

Patrons of ArtCaffe, the Israeli-owned coffee shop that was the first area to be targeted by the terrorists, hide among the wreckage
Patrons of ArtCaffe, the Israeli-owned coffee shop that was the first area to be targeted by the terrorists, hide among the wreckage

Seeing photographs and videos taken inside the Westgate Shopping Mall really homed in my sense of shock. I’ve been so used to walking through the Mall, sampling its excellent variety of foods and admiring the products of its famous Maasai Market that news of explosions, gunfire and smoke was too much to digest. In my mind, Westgate has always been Nairobi’s bastion of cosmopolitanism where everyone is welcome. Despite so many places in the capital visibly segregating the haves and have-nots with gates and barbed wire, the Westgate Centre, by contrast, is remarkable in its openness. You can see such diverse groups of people interacting with each other, from foreign expats and diplomats to local Kenyans. This melting-pot effect held such great appeal to me that I often frequented the Mall just for the people-watching.

I’ve been so used to walking through the Mall, sampling its excellent variety of foods and admiring the products of its famous Maasai Market that news of explosions, gunfire and smoke was too much to digest

Contestants from the Junior Masterchef contest, which was taking place on the rooftop of the mall, receive medical attention
Contestants from the Junior Masterchef contest, which was taking place on the rooftop of the mall, receive medical attention

Now all I could see from the recent news images was this cosmopolitan and ornate mall being transformed into a warzone, with innocent shoppers fleeing and turning into hostages. What made such scenes so poignant and terrifying was the knowledge that people we knew were put into this unimaginable situation. They were the ones trapped during the siege and sustaining a whole host of injuries while all we could do was helplessly watch their plight from afar.

Worst of all has been listening and speaking to the people who had to undergo and experience such a gruesome ordeal. A family friend of ours was forced to spend three hours along with his aunt hiding in a staff locker room in a delivery depot warehouse beside Westgate. When sending him a message, I just didn’t know how to be of consolation to him. After all, what do you say to someone who had to clamber over dead bodies to escape such a living hell? I also don’t remember being more relieved in my entire life after receiving the news that my aunt had left the Mall only half an hour before the Al-Shabaab militants stormed in.

Victims of the Westgate terrorists are taken away from the scene
Victims of the Westgate terrorists are taken away from the scene

When people have asked how I am, I just can’t help explaining how surreal it feels when something of such a magnitude happens in so familiar a location. The bizarreness of it all left my initial thoughts verging on the irrational. After getting the news,I remember being more concerned as to where I’d get my next coffee and brunch fixes when visiting the Kenyan capital. ArtCaffé, the Israeli-owned café on the ground floor where the attackers began shooting, used to be my source of escapism, spent ogling the marvellous displays of French pastries. Only a ten minute drive from my grandmother’s house, I’d spend many a happy morning there with my laptop, a good book and a cup of coffee in hand. It seemed that my palette was the first to take the news hardest!

As much as I have criticised the Bubble for curbing my awareness of current affairs in the past, in this case, it has definitely served as a mixed blessing. The “isolation” has proved therapeutic, preventing me from being in the throes of grief

As much as I have criticised the Bubble for curbing my awareness of current affairs in the past, in this case it has definitely served as a mixed blessing. The ‘isolation’ has proved therapeutic, preventing me from being in the throes of grief. Despite regularly receiving updates from my parents, the impact hasn’t struck me as much as it probably would have done so back at home. I’ve also been lucky to receive a lot of support from those around me. Busy schedules and activities have kept me busy, leaving little time to wallow in the sadness of such a tragedy.

Parmashu Jain, an eight-year-old Indian national who died in the attack
Parmashu Jain, an eight-year-old Indian national who died in the attack

There’s no doubt that the Kenyan nation will be affected by this recent terrorist attack. Retail, recently a top investment area throughout Kenya and indeed Africa, and tourism will certainly be hit. A cousin back in Nairobi, who runs a travel agency firm, explained that in the attack’s aftermath a number of tourists understandably cancelled trips to Kenya for the forthcoming months. Al-Shabaab many have struck at the consumer-driven heart of the country but I rest assured that the compassion and positivity of the Kenyan people will see their nation overcome this hump on its road to development.

Editorial: Why The Saint published the Westgate photos

Photos: Vivek Shah

1 COMMENT

  1. As a matter of ethics and of courtesy I sincerely hope the Saint has got the permission of victims’ families to publish these photos.

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