Stars and Stripes reporter reflects on Westgate attack
I had already been more than a week in Amman, Jordan, covering the plight of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. The routine had gone something like this: Desolate, dusty camps in the daytime – hotel room at night. Switch to TV news for the latest. It was always on Syria – 24-7.
Not this time.
As I switched to CNN on Saturday, a scene of chaos overtook my screen. I knew this place, this mall – it was Westgate, in Nairobi, Kenya. As the cameraman swung his lens to capture the scenes of panic, I realized I also knew the face, or the bright red pants. My former roommate, Ian Cox, tucked back tightly in a corner outside the mall as injured victims rushed past and gunfire erupted around him.
Fortunately, he was unharmed.
I knew this mall because for most of last year, I had made it my makeshift newsroom. As a freelance journalist covering East Africa and based in Nairobi, it had become my home away from home.
I knew Ian, because quite literally as a broke and hungry freelancer, he took me in, showing me the ropes of my new city. He was an entrepreneur – in the region for more than 10 years – doing everything from safari tours in his earlier years, to currently running a successful vehicle import export business. He had, you might say, become the face of the Nairobi ‘expat’ scene.
Which is why before I even knew where I was going to live, he showed me Westgate.
“You’ll want to know this place,” I remember him saying. “Great food and internet.”
What else could a journalist want?
It’s the reason that nearly every day we went there, you couldn’t help but run into one, two, three or more people you knew. As foreigners in Kenya, we all called it our place.
I remembered seeing a post on Facebook earlier in the day: “Stay away from Westgate and surroundings. Be safe – gunfire and explosions,” a friend living near the mall posted.
It wasn’t uncommon to see posts like that. Al-Shabab, or sympathizers of the al-Qaida linked group some say, had attacked spots in Nairobi before – usually a drive-by hand grenade, or a single bombing somewhere downtown. It’s unlikely Kenyans expected an attack of this magnitude during the initial reports. I know I didn’t.
Still, many of us had discussed the possibility of such an attack. We knew the café at the mall was packed tightly with diplomats, journalists, and NGO workers from all over the globe. It seemed a prime target, and Al-Shabab had been very clear in the past, they would attack Kenya until they removed their troops from Somalia, they would say or tweet.
But this had been the case for nearly two years, with rarely any attacks on foreigners. We ate, shopped and partied anyway. The mall had four levels. It was the ideal place for a date – food on the first floor, movies on the fourth. The sushi restaurant, Onami, had a lively salsa night.
Now images were pouring in from the mall of armed men, cutting corners, hunting down terrorists. The images were nostalgic in the worst of ways.
My Facebook feed began to fill up with people posting, “roll call,” asking all their friends in the area to post something so they could be tracked, and everyone would know they were alright.
“Friends inside the mall. No word yet,” a friend posted. Other people began to post the different hospitals they had already visited, in a desperate attempt to locate friends and loved ones.
Video began to emerge of a gunfight inside Art Café, the place where we would sit outside on a sunny Kenyan afternoon discussing our next reporting trip, or just where to go at night. It was an oasis, and now the location of the initial attack for what would become a hellish weekend for Kenyans and expats.
Four days into “the assault on Westgate,” smoke continued to rise from the site, as soldiers attempted to flank the remaining attackers, holding an unknown number of hostages. Late into the afternoon on Tuesday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the nation on national television, stating "we've ashamed and defeated our attackers." Still, many questions go unanswered as the Kenyan military continues to surround the building, and the status of some hostages is still unknown.
Social media groups began to emerge, naming lost friends and locations for funerals. The body count currently stands at 62, according to the Kenya Red Cross, with more than 170 injured and wounded.
Email lists and groups have begun to disseminate the locations for blood drives, pleading for urgent help.
I wish I were there myself to help. Others disagreed.
“My wife told me she’s glad you’re not in Kenya right now,” my friend Jeff Kinyanjui, a local sports journalist in Kenya, told me. “Because she said we’d probably be at Westgate with you.”
I write this with a heavy heart for all those affected.