Kenya: Westgate Terror Attack, the Dark Day We All Want to Forget

21 September 2020

Nairobi — Ahead of this 7th anniversary of the Westgate terror attack, I was clueless on what to write of it.

Most of the survivors whose contact I kept after multiple interviews are no longer willing to speak about it. They just want to heal. They want to forget. They want closure.

Detectives and security experts have turned the events of that dark day upside down while trying to provide answers to some of the hard questions; what went wrong? Were all terrorists killed? How many were they? Could it have been done better?

It is an incident that reminds me of my earlier days in my career as a young Crime Reporter.

I was aged 23 years old.

On this day, my Editor had sent me to check out on an explosion along Juja Road. Everyone thought it was terror-related. I was equally convinced.

Grenade attacks were a common trend in town, mostly blamed on Al Shabaab attackers.

But I realised that it was a gas cylinder that had exploded with no casualties reported. On my way back to the office, I received a call from my Editor.

"Rush to the Westgate mall in Westland's. There is something happening there. I think it is a bank robbery," he directed, without further details.

But before I could get to the scene, my editor deployed two of my colleagues, a Reporter and a Camera person who I found at the scene.

Up to now, it remained a robbery incident and no one wanted to confirm otherwise. There was gunfire all over. At the scene, I saw ambulances and many security officers, all confused and terrified. It was chaotic.

A large crowd had formed outside, and with my media card, I was able to access the scene with ultimate proximity.

I recall seeing photojournalists jostle for space as hundreds of injured survivors were being rescued and taken into waiting ambulances.

This marked the beginning of a four-day siege that left Kenya's security forces with numerous criticisms on how they handled the rescue operation.

Joseph Ole Lenku, the current Governor for Kajiado was the Interior Minister.

For four days, I camped outside the mall as my colleagues kept checking updates in hospitals. I would occasionally rush home for a quick meal, shower, and a few winks before going back to ensure I don't miss a story.

The truth is, confusion characterized the rescue operation, including instances when the military and police were seen differing on how to manage the rescue operation, leading to the fatal shooting of three officers.

The days were longer than usual and while the nights full of anxiety and fear... the deep silence at the night would often be disturbed by a loud blast.

Looking back at the events of the four days, the media and Kenya's security agencies have learned a lot if one is to draw a comparison on how the Westgate terror attack and the recent one, the Dusitd2 attack were handled.

Back in September 21, 2013, the media was accused of glorifying the terror agenda, subconsciously.

Reference is made to a picture on the front page of Daily Nation the following day, showing a terrified face of a victim.

During the Westgate attack, information was not flowing and when it did, it caused more confusion.

The then Interior Cabinet Secretary Ole Lenku had a difficult time explaining to the world what was happening at the scene when a dark smoke billowed out.

"It is terrorists burning mattresses," he said, causing uproar in what exposed the country's security forces' underbelly.

In 2019, information was readily provided while the security agencies carried out the rescue operation in a more coordinated manner.

The response too was swift. We have all learned from our past. Both the police and the media. Every day is a learning experience.

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