Today marks three years since the Westgate terror attack that left 67 people dead and scores others injured. Karanja Nzisa, a writer based in Nairobi gives his perspective on what the security agencies have done to avert such attacks.
Sometime last year on an ominous Sunday afternoon, a friend of mine gave me his copy of Dan Reed’s celebrated HBO documentary which chronicles succinctly the terror attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall three years ago today. He assured me of the supreme journalistic quality and educational merits of ‘Terror at the Mall’ as he handed it to me, but I could hear in his voice the unmistakable tinge
of foreboding which I chose to ignore.
Later that evening, I curled myself up under a cherished fleece blanket, armed with a bottle of Tilia Malbec and a pitiful affectation of grit to watch it. Needless to say, both wine and pretense dwindled faster than imaginably possible and somewhere between sniffles and whimpering, I ejected the disc -less than halfway through the film- and dragged my weathered self to bed where I had a fitful night’s sleep.
It was months before I attempted to sit through the horror of Reed’s machinations again and since then I have seen the docu-film in its entirety close to thirty times. The evolution of the emotions I have experienced since my first introduction to ‘Terror at the mall’ bear testimony to the irrefutable influence of media in the rebuilding of societies that have experienced severe collective traumas.
I was not in the mall when the attack happened but I am connected to many who were; some whose end came to them there. My first reaction watching the first scenes in that film was an outrage so intense it physically shook my body. How dare he? How much more gloriously exploitative could HBO possibly be? How did the government allow this to happen? How had it not been banned? It was too raw. Too violent. Too soon.
But when I calmed down, I thought to myself, was there really an appropriate time for this kind of thing? A year had passed. The dead were buried and the injured healing. Psychological counseling was being offered to survivors and the maimed, well they remained irreversibly maimed. Little would change. Ten years would close gashes and stop the bleeding but the scars would remain. Then oddly, after feelings of confusion, anger, fear and fatigue, I started to feel a growing pride each time I saw the film.
The interviewees who had lost loved ones or witnessed atrocious killings were taking charge of their lives, confronting fears, tending to their scars and establishing dominion over the madness that had swept into their lives.
When in July 2015 the mall reopened its doors to the public, my pride soared even more. Since then, traffic into the mall has increased steadily. I have never known a braver show of resilience and defiance by survivors towards the architects of their collective suffering.
Staffers at stores in the mall who saw their colleagues felled by the bullets of men hardened by hatred returned to work with eagerness and near feverish resolve. The message was clear, ‘evil would not triumph!’
Today I sit in cafes at popular malls watching the smiling faces go by and wonder how many of them remember. How many understand? How much do they know? And more importantly, do they feel safe?
While the perfunctory searches conducted by the dozens of guards who have become a fixture in many public spaces today fail to impress, it is important to look at the larger picture, assess and acknowledge the efforts made by the government to galvanise security intelligence and secure our homeland.
Just this month, parliament approved the renewal of our Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with the United Kingdom. This pact promises the British obscene privileges but also entitles Kenya to a healthy chunk of support for security forces deployed within and without our borders.
Not so long ago, a pair of ‘radicalised’ men affiliated with the ISIS network was arrested in their Kangemi home where potentially explosive materials were recovered. This followed a foiled (if the authorities are to be believed) bio-terror attack, which was meant to have featured anthrax and was to be executed by a young medic, his wife, and a friend.
Kenyan soldiers of the controversial peacekeeping mission in Somalia successfully countered an ambush in Sarira, Somalia after a swift extraction operation in early September. Not to be forgotten is the small triumph these troops enjoyed in March when 34 Al-Shabaab militants were killed and a senior commander captured. Still this month, in Mombasa, three female jihadists were killed while attempting to petrol bomb a police station. Since the incident, video has emerged that seems to counter the narrative that the women were indeed terrorists, and is being viewed by some human rights activists as an “extra-judicial killing”. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to know that the Police were able to respond effectively without reporting a casualty on their end.
In August, agents from the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit arrested two students in Malindi with links to the Islamic State. Local government heads in the oft-neglected North Eastern region have confirmed relative calm and heightened security in their jurisdictions while the tourism sector has improved by 14% in the first half of 2016 compared to the same period last year.
The list of victories goes on for miles and it burns a flame inside me, fuelled by an urge to identify more pronouncedly as Kenyan, an appreciation for our Defence forces regardless of the malaises that plague them and a sense of responsibility to hold our leadership accountable for their actions in coming years.
They owe it to the Kenyans who have been bold in the face of adversity while they engaged in their despicable political wrangling behind fortresses built on the backs of hardworking taxpayers.
They owe it as atonement for the offensive ineptness and betrayal of our trust in their handling of the Westgate incident. They owe it to us, and they owe it to posterity. Until the storm clouds clear, however, we have only each other and there is no better way to look out for each other than to accord fundamental human respect to another and practice some compassion.
Onward we march.
By Karanja Nzisa