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'Those are our people. I am ready to die to get them out'



I was watching the news at home when the Westgate mall story broke. Young, casually dressed men — carrying very sophisticated weapons — had opened fire on shoppers in Nairobi's luxury mall, killing dozens, and taking an unknown number hostage.

Westgate is 10 minutes' drive in clear traffic from where I live. I listened hard for gunshots. Like most Kenyans, my first instinct was to jump on a bus and go and see for myself — a bad habit we have often been warned against. Instead I stayed glued to the screen, watching CCTV footage — a man grimacing and holding his side, his AK-47 beside him, another taking aim from behind a pillar.

The police were running about with their G3 and AK-47 rifles, ducking behind walls and hedges in their short-sleeved blue shirts and no body armour. The terrorists — members of the Shabab, the militant group mostly based in Somalia — were holding them off. They had barricaded the entrance to the mall with corpses.

It was like a movie, except it involved real people, and a real place I knew.

I thought of the mall's bookstore, where I had occasionally gone to sell my books. I have the number of one of the salesmen at the bookstore, and I thought about picking up my cell phone and calling him. But then I realised he might be hiding behind a counter, the boot of one of the gunmen inches from his face. That phone call could be his ticket to hell.

There is a movie theatre on the second floor, and I thought of the people in there hearing what they presumed to be gunshots on the soundtrack, not knowing they were about to meet the real thing.

Next morning, I went to the scene, where the siege was still going on.

I listened to one young man in the crowd of onlookers speak to another in Kiswahili. This is not a job for the police, he said. What they are good at is harassing drunkards to extort bribes.

But he expressed his confidence in the army, the Kenya Defence Forces, which had arrived a while after the attack began. It was difficult to tell exactly what was happening.

Others in the crowd wondered how the attackers could have planned and mobilized without the intelligence services knowing. They wondered how the young men could have driven through the city armed without being spotted.

They felt that more resources were being channelled into protecting politicians and bureaucrats than into taking care of the entire country.

I left the crowd to go to the centre of town, where the Red Cross was accepting blood donations. I was surprised by the lines of people waiting patiently for their turn. Quite a number were wearing green shirts: the team colour of Gor Mahia, one of the country's oldest soccer clubs. It had rallied its supporters on radio, TV and social media to donate blood before going to the stadium for a match that afternoon.

But even in tragedy, trust an enterprising Kenyan to find a way to capitalise on the situation. While good citizens were busy donating blood, the con artists were not asleep.

Someone pasted posters on the Red Cross tents, asking people to send money to a mobile number for a fake charity that purported to help the victims.

It became a cat-and-mouse game, the Red Cross staff pulling down the handwritten posters and the con men — probably using street urchins — putting them up again.

But these are the contradictions of life in Kenya. If the militants think what they are doing has terrified us, they are wrong. All they have done is bring us closer together.

A visit to the blood donation centre will confirm this. In those lines, our political differences and the endemic corruption of our bureaucratic systems recede.

Now that the Shabab has struck again, I think every Kenyan has accepted that terrorism is real, and that we have to do something about it. The people I spoke to want their government to think carefully about preventing such attacks in the future.

They want resources to be available for this. China can build all the futuristic superhighways it wants to in Kenya, but they won't amount to much if security is not addressed.

These terrorists are fighting a cowardly war, against children out having lunch with
their parents.

They are no match for the courage of some of the young Kenyans I overheard at the scene of the attack, who were even willing to volunteer to go in and take on the hostage-takers, if the police would allow them.

"Those are our people in there. I am ready to die to get them out," one of the men said to another.

 The New York Times News Service



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