Westgate a Symbol of Our Resilience

Before the horrific Westgate terrorist attack on September 21, 2013, I would regularly go there to buy die-cast metal toy cars at the Planet Media shop for my son, who had refused to outgrow them, or just to do household shopping. At times, I would remain in the car at the parking lot as he went to the mall to buy a toy car.

When the attack took place and for many days afterwards, I would agonise over the awful possibility of my son being inside the besieged mall while I waited in the car.

As I watched the macabre pictures of the innocent who had been butchered, the ruins of the hitherto high-end mall, heroic security officers and civilians saving people and survivors running helter-skelter, I remained numb for days and the trauma stayed with me for much longer. While I did not vow to never go back to the mall, I do not remember passing near it since that September.

Then it was announced the mall would re-open its gates on Saturday, July 18, and while I was still not in a hurry to visit the Westgate, my son could barely sleep that Friday, insisting that he had to be at the mall on that opening day. I would only be saved from my son’s persistence by a family function that was happening on the same day, but there was no escape the following day.

The last time I visited Westgate before the attack, we had parked at the Sarit to avoid the traditional traffic jam that one encounters as you approach the mall from Ring Road, Parklands, and I was tempted to do the same on Sunday, but the young man reminded me of the heavy downpour that caught us last time as we walked back to Sarit from Westgate.

And when we approached the mall from the Westlands shopping centre, the first thing I noticed that reminded me of the saying that the more things change, the more they remain the same, was the traffic jam leading to Westgate. Vehicles were barely crawling as the long queue snaked towards the mall.

Many other people were walking alongside the vehicular traffic and one could be forgiven for thinking the people were headed to a popular evangelical crusade or an election campaign meeting; only these people seemed to have a more rational purpose.

We entered the mall amid tight but friendly security together with hundreds of others, many of whom had come to witness this historic time. Along the corridors, excited men, women and children walked and admired the luxury goods in the shop windows as others rode the escalators to the first and second floors.

As shoppers jam-packed their baskets and diners ate their fill, there was a carnival mood in the air and no signs of the disaster that had taken place less than two years earlier. The trepidation I had had for those two years was gone the moment I joined the queue of the motorists going to the mall at the Ring Road junction.

As I walked side by side with my eager son, it was just like the old days and once inside we jumped onto the escalator to the first floor and then walked the flight of stairs to the second, where the Planet Media toy shop is located. On that floor, I noticed a few familiar spots whose fronts however were slightly different due to the rehabilitation and subsequent facelift, but I was easily at ease in these surroundings and so were all the other visitors to Westgate on that cold Sunday.

There was no trace of the distress that engulfed the mall and its environs on that and the subsequent days when the militants besieged it, held hundreds captive and mercilessly butchered tens of others. All around me were happy people, people doing their thing and enjoying themselves enormously. These were people telling al Shabaab and all other terrorists: “You inflicted pain, tremendous pain on us, but you did not break us and you never will.”

It was and still is the aim of terrorists the world over to cause fear and despondency through senseless killings and destruction. They have killed, maimed and destroyed the property of Kenyans since and even before Westgate, but they have not broken our spirit and what I saw at the mall on Sunday is an indication that we shall overcome.

The message appeared to be that Kenyans and the foreigners who believe in our country may not be immune to terrorism, but they are a hard-wearing lot that terrorists will not destroy.

My son and I may have missed him but the visit by President Uhuru Kenyatta to Westgate on that Sunday drove that message home.

Njonjo Kihuria is a freelance journalist.