The bullet holes are plastered over, the shattered glass restored. Two years after terror struck at Westgate in Nairobi, the upscale shopping mall is set to reopen amid many unanswered questions over what happened during the four-day siege.
Once a symbol of Kenya’s aspirational middle-class, Westgate has come to represent President Uhuru Kenyatta’s failure to combat a growing Islamist terror threat on its own soil. As city officials toured the site of one of Kenya’s worst terror attacks, where Somalia’s al-Shabaab slaughtered at least 67 people as they dined and shopped, it was easy to forget the grisly events that happened here.
Workmen were putting the finishing touches to many of the original shops and restaurants, while the flagship Nakumatt superstore, where shoppers cowered behind shelves as the gunmen picked them off, is bigger than ever.
But as the shopping centre prepares to welcome its first shoppers on Saturday, some are critical of the decision to resume business while so much remains unknown – and in the absence of an inquiry promised by the Kenyan President. “By rebuilding the mall, we are covering over everything that we don’t know,” said Patrick Gathara, a satirical cartoonist for Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. “It’s a symbol of our continued and deliberate ignorance.”
Ahead of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya later this month, the message from the government, however, was one of defiance. Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero paid tribute to Kenyans’ “indomitable spirit.”
“I say to Nairobians: let’s turn out on Saturday,” he told reporters outside the mall. “Kenya is safer than ever. If it wasn’t, Obama wouldn’t be coming.”
It was just before lunchtime on a Saturday when at least four gunmen overran unarmed security guards at the mall’s entrance in September 2013. Josephine Mutungi, who owned a small music stall on the second floor, initially thought it was a robbery, a delusion quickly shattered when gunmen with scarves wrapped around their heads, cigarettes in their hand, fired at the windows of the store where she was hiding. The glass remained intact.
The handling of the siege quickly descended into recriminations after reports of bungling by the security forces, conflicting accounts over the death toll and widespread looting of shops by Kenyan soldiers and police. President Kenyatta, whose nephew died in the attack, assured Kenyans of an inquiry, but an investigation into what happened during those four days has never taken place.
Kenyans watched the tragedy unfold on their television screens with growing dismay as officials issued increasingly bizarre statements suggesting they had taken control of the mall, when in fact they had not, and passing off a massive explosion staged by the military as burning mattresses.
An early failure to establish who was in charge of the operation led to the “friendly fire” killing of a police commander, allowing the terrorists to regroup.
The hashtag, “we are one,” that symbolised Kenyan unity, quickly changed to “we are wondering.” Within days of the end of the siege, store owners returned to find looted shops. The blame quickly fell on security forces after CCTV footage emerged showing soldiers walking out of Nakumatt with bags of goods. The death toll also remains in dispute, the Kenyan Red Cross says several people reported missing were unaccounted for weeks after the attack. Witnesses also reported attackers slipping out of the mall in the confusion, contradicting the official narrative that they were all killed.
With much still in question, the reopening of Westgate has been an oddly muted affair.
Ms Mutungi, the music shop owner, said she had little desire to return but Nakumatt, where she is a tenant, has taken her wares back to the mall. “We are still waiting for answers,” she said. “I’m more disappointed that they didn’t investigate the looting.” In an odd twist, a man she thought was an off-duty policeman came to one of her music stores trying to sell her a saxophone that had been taken from her Westgate stall. Others argue, though, that Kenyans must look forward. “It’s like if a member of our family dies. It doesn’t mean that we stop,” said Saira Karim, manager of the ground-floor Diamond Watch store. “We move on.”
Since Westgate, terror attacks have become a feature of Kenyan life. Al-Shabaab has sworn to wage jihad on the East African nation as long as its troops remain part of an African Union force in Somalia that has pushed the group out of key towns.
In the worst attack since the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi, al-Shabaab killed at least 148 people, mainly students, at a university in northern Kenya in April.
Deteriorating security has persuaded Britain to join a string of countries advising its nationals against travel to large swathes of Kenya’s coast. Dozens of hotels have closed down, and tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, ravaging the tourist industry. The government has responded by targeting Somalia and, more widely, Muslim communities, an approach criticised by security experts and rights groups.
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