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

September 22, 2013

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. My wife and I often took our two small children to play in the castle moon bounces on the top floor or visit the weekly African market on the roof parking lot. There was a movie theater, a casino and a supermarket.

On Saturday, our oasis became a war zone. Gunmen tied to Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militia stormed the mall, killing 59 people and wounding more than 175 — people who had come to shop, see a movie, eat brunch, 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. Nearly 24 hours after the initial assault, as I write this, the attackers are still inside the mall, heavily armed and holding hostages.

Over the past two decades, I have found myself in 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 at 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 from the Westgate mall.

I never expected to see two bullet-riddled corpses at the steps by the entrance 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, along a 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. Or to consider donning my flak jacket and helmet at a place where I often wore nothing more than shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.

This happens in Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia — not near my house, I kept thinking 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 in 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 gunmen stalking victims to kill them.

An American woman, Annamaria Watrin, described how a friend and his teenage daughter had 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 of hours hiding until she was 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, Arjen Westra, described hitting the floor of the ArtCaffe when the shooting began, I almost felt the thud, for I had spent many hours in the restaurant. It was one of my favorite places to meet a source.

Throughout the day, my wife called with updates. 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 and mine are friends, 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 of loved ones trapped inside. They expressed something between sadness and hope. The eyes of an Indian woman who lingered for hours were perpetually welling with tears, but she never broke down crying.

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

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

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