At Nairobi mall, covering a war zone too close to home

September 22, 2013

Injured people cry for help after Islamist militants went on a shooting spree in Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi, on Sept. 21, 2013. Al-Shabab, a Somali militia linked to al-Qaeda, asserted responsibility for the assault that killed at least 59 and left 175 people injured. ( REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

NAIROBI – The Westgate Premier Shopping Mall was an oasis in Nairobi. It was an upscale place where you could treat yourself to a delicious brunch on the canopied terrace of the ArtCaffe or exquisite sushi at Onami, a Japanese restaurant that rivals any in Washington or New York. My wife and I often took our two small children to play in the jumping castles on the top floor or visit the weekly African market that rose up on the roof parking lot. There was even a movie theater, a casino and a supermarket.

On Saturday, our oasis became a war zone. Gunmen linked to Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militia stormed the mall, killing 59 and wounding more than 175 – people who had to come to shop, to watch a movie, to eat brunch, to bring their kids to a birthday party or a cooking class. They were doing exactly what we often do on a weekend at the Westgate. On Sunday morning, nearly 24 hours after the initial assault, as I write this blog, the attackers are still inside the mall, heavily armed with hostages.

Over the past two decades, I have found myself in numerous war zones in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. I survived a suicide bombing in Baghdad, mortar attacks and street battles in Liberia, Libya and Yemen. In 2004, my wife and I were on vacation in Thailand when the tsunami struck, killing several hundred on our beach resort. Nor were we strangers to violence in Nairobi: in 2002, more than a dozen machete-wielding thugs attacked our house in the middle of the night.

But what unfolded Saturday felt markedly different. The war on terrorism had hit uncomfortably close to home, psychologically and physically: we live less than a mile away from the Westgate Mall.

I never expected to see two bullet-riddled corpses at the steps of the mall, at the entrance where I frequently passed through to visit an ATM or enjoy a cappuccino. I never expected to see cars pocked with bullet holes, their doors wide open, on the street I drove on several times a week.  I never expected to call my wife while I was in Nairobi to tell her I was safe, or feel my eyes burning from tear gas when police tried to disperse onlookers away. Nor consider donning my flak jacket and helmet at a place where I often wore nothing more than shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.

This happened in Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia – not near my house, I often thought as I reported from the scene. The interviews with victims felt more personal than other tragedies I have covered. It was difficult to remain emotionally detached, as journalists are expected to be when reporting. One Kenyan woman, Elizabeth Muthona, described how she hid from the gunmen inside a cardboard box at the Nakumatt, a supermarket inside the mall. As she spoke, I could visualize the store’s layout. My family and I had shopped there numerous times, especially on Saturdays. I couldn’t help but imagine my wife hiding in a box with crazed gunmen stalking victims to shoot them dead.

An American woman, Annamaria Watrin, described how a friend and his teenage daughter arrived at the mall to attend a birthday party when gunmen randomly sprayed bullets in their direction. The father was killed. The daughter was wounded. She spent the next couple hours hiding in fear until she was eventually rescued.

As I listened to Watrin’s horrific account, I could not help but think that I, too, was planning to take my 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter to a birthday party at a house near the mall. I silently thanked our host for not holding the party at the Westgate. And when a freelance journalist, Aryen Westra, described hitting the floor of the ArtCaffe when the shootings began, I almost felt the thud of the floor, for I had spent numerous hours in the restaurant. It was one of my favorite places to meet a source.

Throughout the day, my wife was calling with updates of her own. Almost everyone in our social network, it seemed, had friends and relatives trapped inside the mall, hiding in closets or bathrooms, praying that the gunmen would not discover them.  One friend, an Ethiopian woman whose son is a friend of my son, hid for more than 10 hours before Kenyan security forces managed to evacuate her.

The most painful part of covering the attacks was watching the faces of people waiting outside the mall for news about their loved ones trapped inside. They were somewhere between sadness and hope; the eyes of one Indian woman who lingered for hours were perpetually welling with tears, but she never broke down crying.

And as scores of people inside were evacuated, it was hard not to notice the large numbers of children in the fleeing crowds. One father, his face a mask of trauma, rushed out carrying his crying little girl in his arms.

And for the first time in my career, I thought: That could have been me.

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's bureau chief in Africa since 2010. He began his career as a foreign correspondent in Africa, and covered the Iraq war as Baghdad bureau chief.
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