In the worst terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing, 49 people lost their lives and over 150 people are injured in an assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. As of Sunday at 6PM this tragedy is still unfolding since the armed attackers are still in the mall and with an unknown number of hostages. According to the local new outlets, they claim to be from the Somali-based Islamist group Al Shabab and the reason for the attack is still unclear.
I am very familiar with the Westgate mall and was last there in 2012 enjoying a wonderful lunch and visiting the Masaai market to purchase handicrafts. As the largest mall in Kenya, many families go there for their shopping or to spend a leisurely Saturday afternoon (when the attack first took place). I still remember where I was on September 11, 2001, when the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda, and I am sure I will remember where I was when Al Shabab attacked a commercial center in Kenya. I was fortunate enough to be in Mombasa, Kenya at a seaside resort facilitating a two-day Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) Board retreat.
A CIPE consultant, Rick O’Sullivan, and I were working with 12 people on putting together a plan to implement KEPSA’s 2013 National Business Agenda. Part of the retreat was focused on establishing the private sector advocacy priorities and one of the points we made was how unforeseen external events will sometime set the agenda for the government, private sector, and civil society. Little did we know that a few hours later a major event would transform the lives of so many Kenyans and their families.
Unfortunately, this tragedy directly touched the life of the Chairman of KEPSA, Vimal Shah, who lost his cousin in the attack. Shah stepped out of conference room during the Board Retreat to briefly speak to his cousin who was managing a youth cooking event at the mall before the telephone call was cut short.
Today upon our return to Nairobi, we drove to a home near the unfolding tragedy to pay our respects to Shah’s family. Later in the day I had the opportunity to walk the streets and was planning on donating blood. The security forces and the Red Cross set up facilities in various locations across the city for people to donate blood. When I arrived at the designated Red Cross area in downtown Nairobi, there were five or six tents set up and thousands of people waiting in line for the opportunity to donate blood. Tonight it looks like this terrorism saga will continue until the hostages are released, but it is clear that somehow the Kenyans will also overcome this tragedy since they are already coming together as a nation to help those in need.
Lars Benson is Senior Program Officer for Africa at CIPE. As of this morning, the official death toll in the Westgate attack stood at 62 and Kenyan security forces claimed to have regained control of the building.