The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2014 - page 42

The Consequences of War Unfold
The war gradually made itself felt in Nairobi. The first wave of
terrorist reprisals by al-Shabaab was a series of poorly executed
grenade attacks that only killed one or two, but stirred palpable
fear. After all, violent attacks once reserved for distant, tiny towns
along the Somali border were now happening in the crown jewel
of East Africa, the most modern and progressive city on this side of
the continent.
Still, they were confined to impoverished andmarginalized
sections of the city—far from the rich andmiddle-class havens of
the “other Nairobi” located west of Moi Avenue, the road cutting
across the central business district that has become symbolic of the
city’s social divide. East of Moi Avenue is characterized by conges-
tion, dirtier streets and less safe neighborhoods; west of it are tall,
modern buildings housing nongovernmental organizations and
corporations from all over the world, glamorous night life, mani-
cured lawns and, of course, shopping malls.
As the attacks increased over the next year, security measures
increased. The guards (“askaris”) who once stood outside the doors
of supermarkets and office buildings armed with little more than
nightsticks and flashlights, added hand-heldmetal detectors to
their arsenal. These were meant to deter the potential grenade
attacker through early detection of the device, should it be hidden
in a pocket or a handbag. Each person was to be screened before
entering a building.
Because the number of people to be screened was very high
and the procedure was cumbersome, it came to be seen as some-
thing of a formality meant only to give the impression that the
organization was up to date on security. One could easily tell that
the poorly paid security guards had no idea of what, exactly, they
were looking for and were powerless to stop an attack in any case.
(Kenyan security guards do not carry guns.)
Meanwhile, the attacks were becoming more sophisticated.
In one, at a busy section of Moi Avenue, an improvised explosive
device went off inside a building that housed a number of stalls
where shopkeepers sold clothes andmobile phone handsets. Just
one person was killed, but the fact that it had occurred in the heart
of the business district—closer to the “other Nairobi” than ever
before—set off alarmbells.
As reflected in the Kenyan press, only good news came from
Somalia: the terrorists had been decimated and were now on the
run, reduced from a rebel faction to a mere insurgency, greatly
weakened by the overwhelming force of our troops under the
banner of the African Union. The reality of how close jihad had
come to our doorstep never fully evaporated from the back of our
minds. Yet life went on as if none of the attacks had ever happened.
It wasn’t that we didn’t knowwe were in the crosshairs; we just
preferred not to speak about it.
The Bubble Bursts
On the afternoon of Sept. 21, 2013, however, that became
impossible. When gunmen enteredWestgate Mall brandishing
heavy weapons and ammunition strapped across their chests,
witnesses are reported to have thought it was an ordinary bank
robbery. This idea was shattered when the terrorists began indis-
criminately shooting in every direction, killing dozens and leaving
dozens more injured in their path.
Suddenly, the words “Westgate” and “Nairobi” began trending
on Twitter worldwide. Tweets could also be read fromdesperate
survivors trapped inside the mall. Police and ambulance sirens
could be heard across the city as emergency services rushed to the
scene. The rest of the country watched the events unfold on their
TV screens.
We had been warned of this day, but it all seemed unreal. We
were used to a bomb or a grenade going off and seeing footage of
the destruction afterwards. This time live television confronted us
with the sounds of sporadic gunfire and victims, journalists, police
and emergency medical technicians alike all shouting and ducking
for cover.
Nairobi’s cosmopolitan nature became evident in news footage
showing people of every race and ethnicity running out of the mall.
This may be one of the reasons the event drew somuch attention
from international news agencies: the fact that along with Kenyans,
people from their own countries may have been trapped in the
Another reason could have been the scene itself. Westgate Mall,
in the leafy, upscale suburb of Westlands (west of Moi Avenue,
of course), is a popular spot for middle-class and rich Kenyans
and also for the expatriate community of journalists, tourists and
employees of the United Nations and numerous other interna-
tional NGOs operating in Nairobi. Inmany ways, Westgate epito-
mizes the “other” Nairobi—an oasis of fine dining, coffee houses
It wasn’t that we didn’t know we
were in the crosshairs; we just
preferred not to speak about it.
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