Kenyans wait for answers in mall massacre

September 26, 2013

For the past five days, Amina Said has been on a painful journey: a hunt for her husband, Sudeis. The last time she saw him was on Saturday before Islamist militants stormed an upscale mall, massacring dozens of people. She tried calling him that day, but his cellphone was shut off. It’s been like that ever since, but that hasn’t stopped her from calling every hour.

Now, she fears the worst — that Sudeis, 32, was at the mall. She has searched hospital after hospital. She has visited the city morgue four times.

“We haven’t found him yet,” said Said, 29, fighting back tears Thursday as she stood outside the gates of the morgue with her mother. “We’re just waiting.”

Two days after the bloody siege of Westgate Premier Shopping Mall ended, Kenyans are reeling from the aftermath of the worst tragedy to strike their nation since the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing. This East African nation remains in an emotional limbo, as countless Kenyans search for relatives and friends. The official death toll is 61 civilians and six security personnel, but as many as 61 are missing, Kenya’s Red Cross said Thursday.

“The question is: ‘Where are they?’ ” said June Koinange, a psychologist who was counseling victims’ families at the morgue Thursday. “They were at the mall. Were they burned inside? What happened? There’s a very big question there.”

The questions are not limited to the whereabouts of loved ones. On Twitter, Facebook and news Web sites, Kenyans are demanding more details about the attack and its aftermath, and about how a handful of gunmen managed to storm the mall, shoot people with high-caliber weapons and keep Kenyan security forces at bay for four days — details that many have criticized the government for not providing.

Kenya’s Standard newspaper this week released a list of 65 questions under the headline: “Hard questions Kenyans want answered after Westgate terror attack.” They include: “Are there any terrorists on the loose in the city who are yet to be captured?” and “Will the findings be made public after the investigations?”

“The government should tell us the truth,” said Rahila Omar, 55, Sudeis’s mother.

Growing discontent

Amid the uncertainty and grief, there is also an overwhelming sense of patriotism, and countless Kenyans have donated blood and money to help victims and their families. But the growing discontent is palpable. Even al-Shabab, the Somali militia linked to al-
Qaeda that asserted responsibility for the attack, tweeted Thursday that “for many Kenyans a dark cloud of ambiguity still surrounds the events.”

The nation was further rattled after gunmen, thought to be al-Shabab fighters, attacked two Kenyan towns near the Somali border, according to police officials. Two police officers were killed and several others injured in Mandera early Thursday. And one person was killed and four wounded Wednesday in Wajir, 240 miles southwest of Mandera, police said.

The questions that many Kenyans have could take days, if not weeks, to answer. A massive investigation is underway, involving dozens of FBI agents as well as specialists from Britain and other nations. They are conducting forensic probes, including fingerprint and DNA tests, as well as bomb-residue tests, to determine the identities and nationalities of the militants and whether all of them were killed or whether some had fled. The investigation, Kenyan officials said, is proceeding slowly and meticulously amid concerns that the militants may have booby-trapped the mall.

Bureaucratic hurdles

At the city morgue Thursday, specialists from the United States, Britain and Interpol arrived to perform autopsies and gather evidence that could help create a blueprint of what unfolded inside the mall.

That included performing tests on the body of Paul Muriuki, 51, one of the victims. He had six bullet wounds, said John Lynam, an American agricultural consultant from Cincinnati who had employed Muriuki.

Lynam, who has lived in Nairobi for 23 years, and Muriuki’s family were trying to retrieve his body for burial, like so many other families and friends. Muriuki had taken three visiting American nurses — friends of Lynam spending their first day in Kenya — to the Westgate mall Saturday. He was running an errand on an upper floor when the militants stormed the shopping center. Muriuki was separated from the three nurses, who took refuge in the Nakumatt supermarket and managed to flee the building through the loading dock, Lynam said.

“Now it was Paul we were worried about,” Lynam recalled. “We tried his phone again. There was no response.”

On Sunday morning, Lynam and Muriuki’s family began making the rounds of hospitals and Red Cross centers. On Tuesday, when the siege ended, they learned that his body had been taken to the morgue.

But getting Muriuki’s body released to his family involved more obstacles. The morgue authorities first said they needed to do a postmortem, though it was clear how Muriuki had died. Then they told the family to get a police report. On Thursday, when the family members returned with all the documents, they were told that the foreign forensic experts were conducting tests on the bodies. That would take all day. They were told to come back Friday, Lynam said.

“It’s just been one nightmare after another,” he said. “You had the nightmare with the terrorists, and now there’s the nightmare with the bureaucracy.”

Amina Said left the morgue on Thursday with no information about her husband. They have two children, ages 2 and 9, and for the past five days, she has been telling the eldest a lie.

“I have told him, ‘Your daddy will be back. He went to buy us something,’ ” she said.

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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