Kenyans Fearful, Defiant as Nairobi Mall Attack Appears to Wind Down

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jerome Delay / AP

Onlookers watch as heavy smoke rises from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi on Sept. 23 2013

As the standoff at an upscale Nairobi mall between Islamist terrorists and the Kenyan security forces comes to a close, the people of the city are trying to make sense of what has happened and are adjusting to a new sense of insecurity.

At Junction, a shopping center 10 minutes from Westgate Mall, the scene of the attack that has left at least 67 people dead, management has increased security measures. Shoppers must now pass through two separate checkpoints, each with metal detectors and staff checking bags. Many shopping centers remain closed, preferring to take a wait-and-see approach to the situation.

The Westgate branch of Artcaffe, an Israeli-owned restaurant catering to the expat community, was allegedly targeted in the attack. At the Junction branch of the restaurant the crowds are thin. On Monday, Natalie Houben sat discussing her own stories from the weekend with a friend. Houben is the owner of a company that runs mobile-money kiosks in numerous grocery stores around the city. Some of her employees who worked at Westgate found themselves on the front line of the attack, but survived unharmed.

(MORE: Gunfire, Explosion Point to Continuing Strife at Kenya Mall)

Houben’s voice trembled as she recalled her tearful reunion with those staff members on Sunday afternoon. On Monday she visited her other stores across Nairobi to comfort and support her staff. She was unable to reach some staff, but the staff that arrived on the job on Monday “have a sense of fear,” Houben says.

At each shopping center Houben visited she went out of her way to dine or sip a cup of coffee at a branch of Artcaffe to show her support and defiance. Many Kenyans fear that these upscale shopping centers could be the target of a follow-up attack. But Houben believes by keeping her business open and supporting businesses in the shopping centers, she is standing up against terrorist attacks. “We will not bow to terror,” she says.

(PHOTOS: Nairobi Shopping-Mall Shootout Leaves at Least 68 Dead)

Across town in Eastleigh, a predominantly ethnically Somali neighborhood, there is a cautious calm. Somalis in Kenya have been increasingly marginalized in Kenya, especially since 2011 when Kenya joined the battle to root out the Somali militant group al-Shabab, which has claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack. Kenya’s military involvement in combating al-Shabab in Somalia has made Kenya a priority target for the Islamists.

(MORE: Terror in Nairobi: Behind al-Shabab’s War With Kenya)

In November 2012, al-Shabab militants bombed a Nairobi bus, killing nine people. Immediately afterward, outraged Kenyans targeted the Somali community in Eastleigh, rioting in the streets, chanting “Somalis must go,” hurling rocks and smashing windows. But so far there appear to have been no such attacks on Somalis in revenge for the Westgate attack. “There are no signs of backlash or retaliation. Eastleigh is peaceful. It’s business as usual,” says a Somali-Kenyan shop assistant named Molid Apeulkaeir Guled.

Politicians and religious leaders are urging unity. On Monday evening members of Nairobi’s Somali community brought drinks and refreshments to the Kenyan soldiers near Westgate Mall. “We are all affected, we are all Kenyans,” says Houben. “The spirit is so strong in this country. I wish it felt like this every day in Nairobi.”

MORE: Kenya Says U.S. Nationals Among Nairobi Attackers