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Monday, September 23, 2013

Westgate Mall

In the middle of Nairobi's Westlands neighborhood lies a gorgeous mall.  When one steps into Westgate, you could be in any city in America or Europe.  The Art Cafe on the first floor serves artisan salads and amazing coffee.  Java House makes my favorite espresso shake.  The movie theatres show films within days of their worldwide openings.  The Nakumatt grocery store is one of the biggest in the country.  Hundreds of other smaller shops specialize in jewelry or dresses.  There are wide spaces, skylights, tasteful posters, escalators.  We and most expatriates and Kenyan professionals find reasons to stop into Westgate whenever we can.  This summer we watched movies, took kids for a birthday, stopped for dinner, bought groceries, even shopped for a banquet dress (it was way too expensive).

On Saturday, Scott was in Nairobi a few miles from the mall watching Jack play in a football (soccer) tournament while I helped make and sell 180 pizza servings at Senior Store.  Julia's tennis shoes had developed a hole in the sole, so Scott planned to zip over to Westgate to see if he could find her some new ones.  Only before he could go, he got messages that began to spread among friends:  gunshots had been fired at Westgate.  He texted me saying he wouldn't be going.  It was mid day, and we thought it was a brazen time for a robbery.  Then he got more messages:  a family from RVA was in the mall, and as often happens had split up to accomplish more errands.  They reported lots of heavy gunfire, and were hiding.  Soon after we got emergency-system messages from the hospital and the embassy:  Don't go to Westgate.  I came home and turned on the National TV station, in disbelief, as cameras filmed people crouched in a run, streaming out in groups, gunfire echoing, the Red Cross already gathering.  There were bodies on the steps, police with guns drawn backing around corners, soon helicopters hovering, and bloodied escapees trickling out.  The parking lot where we always park on the roof had been hosting a cooking competition for kids, but now the cameras picked up people hiding behind and under cars.  The restaurants where we eat had upturned tables; the grocery store where we shop had blood smeared on the tiles.

Slowly the story emerged: about 15 armed men, some with checkered head scarves, some dressed as women, had stormed the mall.  Using grenades and targeting the security, they came in through outdoor cafe entrances, and fired on vehicles and people.  The few guards who would normally screen purses and pockets at the doors were overwhelmed.  Explosions, gunfire, confusion, hiding, hunting and shouts.  The gunmen announced that muslims should leave, and many were able to.  They asked a guard who Mohammed's mother was, and when he could not answer, they shot him in the head.  Then some of the muslims quickly wrote Q'ran verses for their fellow-hiding-Kenyans to use if questioned.  Within the day, Al-Shabab claimed responsibility.  Kenya invaded Somalia; now Somalian terrorists wanted to fight back.  So they took over the biggest, nicest shopping mall in the city at the peak of Saturday business, and started killing civilians.

The entire country watched in horror.  We could hear gunfire behind the reporters, we could see people coming out in clumps, terrified, hands up.  Occasionally a wounded person would stumble out.  A woman dropped out of an airduct into the arms of others.  A man who wanted to help simply ran into a service entrance and started helping people get out.  The police began to take back the mall, shop by shop, sweeping with guns.  None seemed to have bullet-proof vests or helmets.  Eventually the police had to use tear gas to drive back the crowd; so many separated families, anxious relatives were thronging around the periphery in dangerous reach of snipers.  We got the amazingly good news that the RVA kid who had been holed up for five or six hours with his dad had made it out.  We got the sad news that another RVA kid's extended family had had two killed (Kenyan of Asian descent).

The sun set, and we were stunned that the standoff continued.  And then all day Sunday, and all day today, the attack dragged on.  The death toll rose, to 62.  The injured, at least 175.  Hospitals were full.  The Red Cross appealed for blood and 1500 units were donated.  About 1000 people were escorted to safety.  No one knows how many remain.  Ten? Thirty?  By this afternoon, thick black clouds of smoke were rising from the mall, after intermittent sounds of explosions.  The Kenyan Defense Forces claimed to control all four floors of the mall, and to have the attackers cornered.  But the terrorists may be in a bullet-proof room, and the KDF is showing extreme restraint to save the lives of the remaining hostages.  Three gunmen have been killed.  We don't know how many remain.  After the Al-Shabab twitter feed was shut down, they started posting on another.

In the meantime, we gathered last night for "prayer and lament" with the lower station families and Moffat Bible College students.  And again this morning, and this afternoon.  Praying for those still trapped to have food and water, to be sustained, to have hope, to know God's presence.  Praying for the attackers to have second thoughts, to sense God's love, the possibility of forgiveness, the potential value of surrender.  Praying for the military and police to make wise decisions, to be protected.  Praying for Kenyans to continue to show the world unity, sacrifice, calm, determination, resolve.  Praying for students and friends who are shaken, as I am. It is hard to focus on anything else.  A patient for whom I worked and prayed all week died today.  it was a hard hard day, with the constant background of crisis.

 Ironically I taught Sunday School with a dozen girls in the middle of this on "A Theology of Risk."  Normal life is not safe.  Obedience sometimes leads us in paths of danger.  Psalm 91 was meaningful to us during Ebola, and here again people are falling at our sides yet we are safe.  Does this Psalm mean no harm shall ever befall a Christian?  No, just look at the cross.  There are times when the Kingdom comes via suffering, when risk leads to loss, and loss leads to glory.  There are times when evil strikes.  But there is NO TIME when we can be separated from God's love.  And there is no evil so dark that God can not redeem it.  This is what we hold on to on this terrible weekend in Kenya. '

Tonight we go to bed for the third evening in a row with terrorists holed up in "our" town, with victims cut off from our knowledge of their suffering or survival, with smoke and gunfire and confusion and the interminable announcements.

But we also go to bed having watched ordinary kindness and every day heroism, the commitment of Kenyans to peace and justice, the bonding of shared terror, and the assurance that Love is deeper and stronger than hate.



Jill said...

Well said. I mourn with you, AND I am thankful that you and your family are safe.

Kate Dahlman said...

Beautifully said, Jennifer. Thanks for posting. I'm here in the U.S., and even I am having a hard time concentrating on anything else.