Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Terror in Kenya: A Firsthand Account from Nairobi

On April 15, 2013, shock hit me as I sat at work reading 140 unbelievable characters on Twitter. Tweets claiming that a bomb had gone off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon were unbelievable. Immediately I scrambled, were my friends OK? Who was in that area? What is the situation? Information could not come quickly enough to my office across the river in Cambridge.

On September 21, 2013, I was enjoying the largest rugby tournament in Kenya just north of Nairobi, when I received a call informing me there were gunshots near Westgate Mall in Westlands, Nairobi (.5 miles from the city center). Not thinking too much of it, I pledged I would avoid that area and be vigilant about my security the rest of the day. The rugby tournament turned out to be an amazing event with over 45,000 Kenyans attending, mostly between the ages of 18-35. It was lively, welcoming, and fun.

One my way back home, I was required to pass through Westlands, the part of town where the attack was occurring. Besides minimal traffic for a Saturday night, nothing seemed to be out of place. The bars two miles away from Westlands seemed full judging by their parking lots. I wouldn’t have suspected that a hostage situation with 30 plus dead (at the time) was ongoing within walking distance.

Smoke rises from the Westgate Mall. Courtesy AP.
Immediately, when getting home I realized the gravity of the situation: the numbers of the dead, the hostage situation, the ongoing nature of the conflict, and the possibility that someone I worked with or knew was in the building. Westgate is one of the most popular malls in the city. The news has not exaggerated its popularity. It’s probably the most well maintained shopping center and has some of the best restaurants in town. It’s a classic place to go for lunch during the week, perhaps because the restaurants would rival Europe and the US.  I found myself often having a meeting over coffee at ArtCaffe or Java, and often found myself at the Sushi restaurant Onami, which is one of my Somali colleague’s favorite places to go.

Three days later, we know a lot more about what is going on. We know that Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the attack. We know that there are over 60 people dead. And we know that Kenya and more importantly Kenyans have been united and compassionate in their response. I have been just as proud of the response to calls for blood, for donations, for calm, and for cooperation as I was five months ago in Boston. It has been a fantastic response.

As I write this though, the situation is on going. It is clear that it has been contained to the mall and the attackers have not been able to escape, nor have their been additional attacks in the city. The Kenyan police and military arrived on the scene promptly and, in my belief, have acted completely appropriately - responding quickly but carefully. The longevity of the situation shows they were thoughtful in how they have entered the building. The length of the battle shows that they have not gone in “Rambo” style, guns blazing, but have been aware of the delicacy of a hostage situation and are attempting to maintain every life they can. Their professionalism and willingness to risk their lives is truly heroic.
Not to be left out, the Somali community’s response to the situation has been equally admirable. With uniformed western media calling Al-Shabab a Somali nationalist group, reactions on twitter and in the East African media have been rightfully immediate in dismissing these claims and distancing themselves as far from Al-Shabab as possible. Al-Shabab is a radical militant group fighting the government of Somalia and led by Islamic radicals. They do not represent the Somali people. The Somali business community has equally been positive in their response sending ample amounts of food and water to the police, military, and first aid personnel at Westgate.

Despite that, the cloud of smoke rising from Westgate was visible all day, and the constant hum of helicopters and military planes fighting low was audible. It reminded me more of Mogadishu than the lush and tusker filled Nairobi.

I’ve been disappointed by the media, same as I was in Boston. The 24 hour news cycle requires constant change and movement. As stated before, the operation to retake the hostage situation requires thoughtfulness and longevity. This has led to claims that Kenyan forces are reacting slowly or that it’s not clear what is going on. In most cases, it has led to focuses on Al Shabab as it did in Boston when the Tsarnaevs were repeatedly profiled. CNN once again got it wrong as Anderson Cooper claimed that the majority of Somali refugees return to Somalia to participate in Al-Shabab (that is ridiculous!).
Kenyan soldiers crouch outside Westgate. Courtesy Getty Images.

In this case though, I have also been disappointed in parts of the government. An unified message, improper public relations, uncoordinated release of information, and in many cases offering an overly secure message have been detrimental to people’s awareness and understanding of what is going on. This has only fueled the media and contributed to their mistakes.

This article is not to explain Al-Shabab or the dynamics of Somalia-Kenyan relations. This article is to relay what my perception of the situation has been, and to say that it’s once again evident that positively and unity results from the use of terror and violence. The Kenyan people and all other nationalities living in the international city that is Nairobi have shown remarkably vibrant and positive colors.

As the situation continues, I hope a resolution is found soon. Despite that, it does not take away that Kenyans and Somalis are great people who have responded heroically and compassionately. I hope that this terrorist attack is not effective in persuading people to travel to Kenya. It certainly has not stopped Kenyans from trying to resume their day to day routines. Like Boston, It has been a remarkable display of how people come together and support one another.

For the most detailed history of Al-Shabab, I would recommend Al-Shabab in Somalia by Stig Jarle Hansen.

For twitters that have been following with a Kenyan and Somali perspective (and not American media) check out @Daudoo @harunmaruf @kopalo @mukhtaryare

-This article was written by a guest contributor in Kenya who wishes to remain anonymous due to professional considerations. His credibility can be vouched for by the co-founders of TGA.

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