(The Root) — For many of Kenya’s well-off, Saturdays are for shopping, drinking lattes, nibbling on international fare like sushi and Greek frozen yogurt and window-shopping in Nairobi’s upscale malls. There’s the Sarit Center, the Village Market and the perhaps the glitziest of them all, the Westgate Mall, where the car park is often filled with vendor booths and children racing and darting about. It is also the multicultural epicenter of bucolic wealth and influence. Diplomats, government officials, academics, doctors, businessmen and other professionals gather there, particularly on weekends. In the gated cocoon of Westgate, race, nationality, religion and ethnicity co-mingle with affable ease.
On Saturday, gunmen shattered this privileged, melting-pot idyll. Some dozen men and at least one woman burst in wielding AK-47 and G-3 assault rifles, spraying bullets and tossing hand grenades into the crowd. It was a coordinated two-prong offensive, with two squads of gunmen entering the mall on separate levels simultaneously. Observers described the armed attackers as well-trained and conscious of trying to separate Muslims from the crowd to spare them from the attack. It was scarcely surprising when al-Shabaab, which is affiliated with al-Qaida, immediately claimed responsibility, and via Twitter vowed further violence, until its account was shut down.
Still, images of the carnage show men, women and children, clearly of different faiths, bloodied and wounded. People in burqas, saris, designer clothes, hip jeans and Saturday track suits — the status symbol of Kenya’s elites — are all captured fleeing the scene, helping the injured and taking cover — and bodily covering children — from the blitzkrieg of gunfire.
The Kenyan government has reported 59 dead from the attack (with the number likely to rise) and 175 injured thus far, as the siege is not yet over. The attackers remain barricaded on Westgate’s top floor with some 30 hostages. The Kenyan military, together with Israeli reinforcements, are engaging in an exchange of intermittent gunfire even as I write.
Kenya is near and dear to my heart, as I have worked and lived there on and off for more than 20 years. For nearly all of that time, al-Qaida and its terrorism have been part of Kenya’s landscape. Its dramatic start was marked in 1998, when a lorry of explosives detonated outside the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, killing some 200 people. I arrived in Kenya a few weeks later for a Fulbright year, and my graduate-student romanticism evaporated — never to return — when I stood in front of the leveled embassy, the warren of tangled metal and piles of blood-stained, concrete shards symbolic of Kenya’s uncertain future as one of al-Qaeida’s battlegrounds.