Forgetting Westgate: how Kenya erases terrorism

2017-09-09 14:56
Smoke rises from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. (Jerome Delay, AP)

Smoke rises from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. (Jerome Delay, AP)

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Nairobi - On the inside Nairobi's Westgate mall is a shiny shopping centre, all sparkling glass shop fronts, Bose-conveyed muzak and boutiques stuffed with expensive imports. On the outside it is a fortress.

Four years ago, Islamic militants raided the mall killing at least 67 people. They tossed grenades over the balustrade from the pavement then stormed through the front entrance and up the car parking ramp shooting as they went. The modus operandi was reminiscent of the Mumbai attacks five years earlier.

Yet Westgate has drifted into what Caine Prize-winning Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes as "our national propensity to amnesia for 'bad things'."

Two years after the mall reopened, Westgate remains glossy and new, as if nothing happened. There's plenty for the well-heeled shopper but not even a plaque for the dead.

"Westgate has been erased from the public imagination," says Patrick Gathara, a Kenyan cartoonist, blogger and curator of online publication The Elephant.

"The reopening of Westgate was a narrative of triumph. That we had won somehow."

On that clear September Saturday in 2013, the gunmen sought out non-Muslims and foreigners but their targeting was sloppy.

They killed largely at will, for hours waylaid only by an ad hoc crew of plainclothes police and licensed civilian gun owners.

 Don't ask questions 

Today a repeat assault would be hard to pull off. Tall metal railings and thick bulletproof glass line the mall on the pavement side. There are metal detectors, sniffer dogs and dozens of security guards at the entrances but unarmed in line with Kenyan law. There is a 'No Stopping At Any Time' signpost close to where the terrorists stopped their car.

There are cosmetic changes on the inside as well. A gourmet burger joint where many died has moved from the ground floor terrace at the entrance to the third floor food court and replaced by a noodle bar.

The ground floor atrium coffee bar has been revamped, the main cafe reconfigured and the superstore - all sites of slaughter - relocated.

Other construction is still underway which means the rooftop car park where children and their parents were killed at a cookery competition is out of bounds.

Gathara has pushed repeatedly and unsuccessfully for a public enquiry to answer the questions around Westgate.

The government line was that security forces heroically battled as many as 15 terrorists, armed to the teeth, during a four-day siege.

But in reality there were just four gunmen, the security response was too late for most of the dead who were killed in the first hours.

During the subsequent days, it is alleged soldiers looted shops and blasted open safes before blowing up the rear of the building.

The Government Printer, an obscure department housed in a musty downtown office, is stacked with the reports of commissions of enquiry and investigations conducted, written up, filed and forgotten. Gathara says he's often asked why he bothers, "rehashing these things that we really can't do anything about."

 Condemned to repeat the past 

Unlike the pure tragedies of Paris or Bamako, London or Barcelona, Kenyans know their security forces failed.

Worse still, the tragedy of Westgate has been sullied and cheapened.

This is one reason why Kenya has developed "a pathology of not only trying to forget but to obscure memory," said Billy Kahora, a writer and editor at the Kenyan literary network Kwani Trust.

"Just throwing these things under the rug means they come up again and again and you've learned nothing," says Kahora.

Two years after Westgate four more jihadist gunmen from the same Shabaab group attacked a university in the eastern town of Garissa. They held platoons of soldiers at bay while murdering 148 mostly young, Christian students.

When victims' families wanted to set up a memorial for the Westgate dead, they did so alone. A monument was put up in a forest, funded by private donations, and saplings were planted.

After the 2015 Garissa attack too it was left to family members and angry social activists to hold vigils. In both cases, the state was noticeably absent.

"All this trauma keeps piling up on people and at some point something's got to give," says Gathara.

Read more on:    shabaab  |  kenya  |  east africa

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