Kenyan alumna discusses Westgate Mall terrorist attack

October 8, 2013

But for rugby tickets, Chemutai Kipkorir could have a different story to tell.

Colleagues and friends know Kipkorir's usual Saturday schedule. The 2002 Indiana State University alumna would head to Nairobi's upscale Westgate Mall in the morning to watch a movie and grocery shop for the week. She would sometimes pick up her favorite olive bread from Art Caffe or have a champagne brunch to catch up with friends before leaving the upscale shopping mall in mid afternoon.

On the Saturday of Sept. 21, the Kenyan native had received complementary tickets to the annual Safari Sevens Rugby Tournament, in which teams from Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa and Japan would compete. As she was preparing to leave for an afternoon of rugby, she received two text messages from colleagues: "Are you at Westgate, gunshots all over the place, hope you're not there" and "Robbery going on at Westgate are you there?"

She responded in the negative, thinking nothing of it.

But then more texts began to arrive.

"It was evident this was more serious than a robbery," Kipkorir said in an email interview.

Kipkorir lived in the United States for 11 years, completing high school in Potomac, Md., before enrolling at Indiana State. After graduating with a degree in political science and a minor in international relations focused on Africa and the Middle East, she worked as a paralegal in Wooster, Ohio. In 2005, she returned to Kenya where she now works as a dealer for a fund manager in Nairobi.

On that Saturday as she traveled by cab toward the stadium where the rugby matches would be played, she and the driver listened as radio channels streamed reports about what everyone thought was a bank robbery. A fleet of ambulances screamed past them exiting the highway to transport the injured to the Aga Khan hospital.

"I kept getting a regular flow of calls now as folks started ‘checking in' as to my whereabouts when it seemed pretty apparent this was not a standard attempted bank robbery," she said.

When Kipkorir's arrived at the stadium, she found scalpers, spectators and vendors jostling together, clogging entrances with slow security screenings as guards checked for contraband alcohol. Kipkorir paused at a network news truck to watch the live feed of the wounded and shell-shocked stumbling out of the mall.

"Here I was outside gate 15 of the stadium as crowds of fans and spectators walked past clutching lukewarm beers, half-eaten hotdogs and plates of grilled ribs while something huge was happening, but they were not really caring," she said.

Members of the extremist Muslim group al-Shabaab threw grenades and opened fire at the crowded upscale shopping mall shooting grandparents, children and adults beginning at Art Caffe before roving through the mall, the movie theater and the grocery store. The terrorists killed at least 67 people and injured 175 in the four-day siege. Five mall attackers were killed and eight taken into custody, according to news reports.

Though Nairobi has seen terrorist attacks before such as the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassy, this time the attack focused on the country of Kenya instead of its western allies, which were the focus of previous attacks.

Al-Shabaab said its members acted in revenge for Kenyan troops fighting in Somalia. In 2011, Kenyan troops launched military strikes against Somalia-based al-Shabaab militants, who kidnapped foreign tourists and aid workers from within Kenya. About a half million Somalians have taken refuge in Kenya from the ongoing civil war in Somalia.

"This event does not and should not dictate what Islam stands for," Kipkorir said. "These terrorists don't even deserve the name jihadists because jihad does not condone the slaughter of women, children, the elderly or unarmed civilians, much like the norm in ‘rules of engagement.' Please do not judge, abuse or mistreat Muslims as a community based on the action of these terrorists. They do not deserve it and the only way to understand the actions of the al-Shabaab is to actively communicate with the Islamic community because the majority would not stand for this type of brutality."

Kipkorir said that al-Shabaab exists in Kenya is common knowledge.

"As they had never really done anything major to antagonize Kenya and the capital city Nairobi, a complacency and nervous cohabitation continued to thrive and, as we have seen, bloom," she said.

Kenyans' attention has been more focused on a domestic situation and on survival. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta faces charges of crimes against humanity brought against him by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Kenyatta alleged orchestrated violence following the country's 2007 disputed elections.

"Kenyans are genuinely shocked and the Nairobians are particularly traumatized, but it is definitely localized," Kipkorir said about the attack at the mall.

The majority of Kenyans have never visited the mall, but knew of it, she said.

"The events surrounding the mall are horrific and they will shake their heads and suck at their teeth but life has to go on. How to raise money for tuition, improve their farms or basically hustle another day, so Westgate will be gone and forgotten as it does not directly affect them," she said.

But in Nairobi, Kipkorir now searches shops for all of the exits to escape if needed. That action recalls another time, another country and another terrorist act.

"It reminded me of 9/11 when I was still in school and we kept looking up at the sky at every single plane flying over thinking, ‘Is this going to happen again?'"

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jennifer.sicking@indstate.edu