Terrible humanity

Abdul Haji, one of the first responders, helps rescues a hostage from Westgate Mall, Nairobi

Abdul Haji, one of the first responders, helps rescues a hostage from Westgate Mall, Nairobi

ON 21 September 2013, Al Shabaab terrorists invaded Westgate Mall in the upscale neighbourhood of Westlands, Nairobi, and killed 76 people, including dozens of women and children. This was wholesale killing. The list of dead and injured included Kenyans, Americans, Britons and Australians.

Watching the recent HBO documentary, Terror at the Mall, marking the anniversary of the attack brought a profound sense of loss, regret and anger. Westgate represented the best of Kenya; a burgeoning and multicultural oasis where economic development brought about by globalisation meets African traditions.

Frequented by Westerners and middle-class locals, it was a symbol of Kenya’s development, with cafés and boutiques matching their counterparts in New York, London and Melbourne.

Based on recovered surveillance footage and interviews with survivors, Terror at the Mall pieces together events of that Saturday in gripping detail. The stories are harrowing and vivid, starkly illustrated by the video and images captured by a renowned war photographer who happened to be near the mall.

Stories include that of Neil who, while severely injured, had to watch his wife succumb to her bullet wounds over the course of hours.

“I closed her eyes and took her wedding ring so it would not get lost and just fell back…I must have lay on her trying to give her mouth to mouth…after that it felt fairly empty.”

Incongruous as it sounds, the documentary also highlights the humanity present in all of us. The terrorists, who indiscriminately shot people, were at times at pains to release women and children. Indeed, several of the latter, displaying the innocence of youth and the simplicity of viewing the world through a child’s eyes, admonished the terrorists for what they had done.

In this playground of carnage, they overturned the typical power dynamic that confers ultimate power upon the bearer of the biggest gun. As noted by Amber, who was freed alongside her children, the terrorists continuously asked the children for forgiveness.

Her account also shows the incredible strength and unadulterated honesty present in children. When describing her frightened state, Amber said “my daughter was the complete opposite. She was strolling along and all she said was ‘Mummy, I do not want to do any more shopping today’.

“The terrorists had actually given them chocolate bars. According to my daughter, as they gave my son the Mars bar he said ‘no, can I have some chewing gum’…they were trying to appease the children and explain to them what they were doing…they were saying ‘no, we are not monsters, here have a chocolate’

“I cannot explain why they said sorry, why they asked for forgiveness”.

Similarly, Margie recounted how her basic mother’s instinct saved lives.

“I looked up at him and mouthed the words ‘he is just a baby’. Someone in a broken voice said ‘lady with baby stand up’…the terrorist in the middle sees the baby, cocks his head to the side and makes this cute baby face and waves at me and waves at the baby…if they see my face now, they will know how crazy I think this all is…they are killing women and children and making baby faces at us and waving.”

By attacking Westgate on a Saturday, and given the profile of likely victims, Al Shabaab ensured they got the greatest dividend sought by terrorists – international exposure.

While they may regard coverage of the siege as a success, Terror at the Mall illustrates they ultimately failed. They succeeded in reminding Kenya and the world they are basic murderers and, contrary to their beliefs, do not represent Islam. Indeed, they massacred Muslims, including a seven month pregnant woman, along with Christians and Atheists. They attacked a children’s cooking competition.

This disregard of a basic religious tenet means they cannot claim to be acting for the faith. As Corporal Ali, who was amongst the group of first responders, states, “I felt angry and disgusted by the wanton destruction…the term Islam means peace; where is peace when you kill innocent women and children?”

Abdul, who was amongst the response group with Ali, reiterates this sentiment, “I am a Kenyan-Somali, and I am a Muslim. What angered me the most was the fact that they were Muslims and they were purporting to do whatever they were doing in the name of Islam.”

They also succeeded in steeling our resolve to overcome, our spirit to surmount incredible odds, with many survivors interviewed displaying incredible courage and a willingness to live. All interviewees spoke about how ordinary strangers helped, with some literally putting themselves in the line of fire to protect others.

Pertinently, they succeeded in bringing us closer together. Whether in Kenya, Australia or America, we are all united against terrorism. Christians and Muslims are united against terror and those who seek to kill others, purportedly in the name of religion.

The Westgate anniversary and recent furore over Australia’s involvement in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria raise a moral dilemma.

It is easy to criticise military action and our involvement from the relative comforts of our homes, far removed from the theatres of war. It is easy to say, “If we – usually America and her allies – had not done this, we would not have to be here in the first place”. But this betrays the current reality, where people are being killed every day, often in a war where they are considered collateral damage by opposing forces.

As we hear stories of Yazidis people in Iraq being slaughtered for refusing to renounce their faiths, Westgate survivors share accounts of their colleagues and friends being murdered for the same. These victims were merely following individual belief systems, not involved in an all-encompassing clash of civilisation.

Equally comfortable is displaying righteous indignation when the violence touches close to home.

Americans supported the wars in Afghanistan and – to a lesser extent – Iraq, because of the attacks on New York City; Australian support was encouraged because of our experience with the Bali bombings.

Personally, the Westgate attack and its closeness (schoolmates were amongst the victims and family members were on their way to the mall on that Saturday) strengthened my resolve to combat terrorism, the conditions that foster it and support Kenya’s involvement in Somalia (where my relatives serve in the armed forces).

This may explain why terrorist attacks in distant lands pass unnoticed. Indeed, some critics of the current campaign against ISIS point out that more than 150,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war, yet Western interest was only piqued by the recent beheadings.

This is the unfortunate realpolitik reality: terrorism is a warped ideology combated by a set of increasingly grey and difficult options, often with unintended consequences. The real victims, those who bear the brunt of terrorism and its various ‘antidotes’, are innocent citizens far removed from the spheres of influence. Their place of birth and residence are their only crimes.

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