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Grief, generosity as Kenya starts mourning mall victims

© AFP

Video by Catherine NORRIS TRENT

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2013-09-27

Flags fly at half-mast Wednesday at the start of a three-day mourning period in Kenya, one day after President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that an assault by militants on Nairobi's Westgate mall was over.

It was a typically busy Saturday and Josephine Mutungi's eyes were on the clock as she drove her kids into the Westgate mall parking lot in the Westlands neighbourhood of Nairobi at noon.

There was just enough time to squeeze in some shopping before her son's football practice and the 45-year-old working mother was packing a tight schedule.

"We were at the Planet Media store on the second floor when we heard a really loud bang," said Mutungi, referring to a popular toy and gaming store in the upscale mall in the Kenyan capital. "I thought someone had dropped something really hard, I didn't even think it was an explosion."

Briton arrested in Kenya

A British citizen has been arrested in Kenya following a deadly attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall, Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed on Wednesday.

It was the start of a four-hour ordeal that saw her cowering on the floor as gunshots whizzed around the mall, automatic rifle-toting militants calmly sauntered down the corridors smoking cigarettes, and store staff desperately ushered a panicked clientele into nooks and crannies between shelves and walls to try to protect them from the carnage.

In the end, Mutungi and her children managed to flee the mall unharmed, aided by security personnel.

"I was lucky," she says simply. "I thank God. He saved me."

Not everyone at the Westgate mall was as lucky as Mutungi.

At least 67 people, including six security officials, were killed in the attack, according to Kenyan officials. The victims included citizens from France, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China. More than 170 people were injured and 62 people remain in hospital.

In the course of a harrowing, four-day operation to secure the besieged site, three floors of the upscale mall collapsed leaving several bodies trapped in the rubble.

Five attackers were shot dead and 11 suspects are now in custody, according to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. The attackers' nationalities have not been released.

The al Qaeda-affiliated Somali militant group al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack, but an official investigation is currently underway.

Josephine Mutungi, a teacher in Nairobi, spent four hours cowering on the floor of Nairobi's Westgate mall on Saturday as gunmen took control of the sprawling shopping centre. © Photo credit: Leela Jacinto

Announcing the end of the siege in a televised address on Tuesday night, Kenyatta noted that Kenyans had "shamed and defeated our attackers" and that the nation had "stared down evil and triumphed. We have defeated our enemies and shown the whole world what we can accomplish."

But while the Westgate siege has ended, the shock, trauma and grieving has just begun.

As Kenya starts a three-day period of mourning Wednesday, families across the country and the world are preparing for burials, cremations, and the expatriation of the bodies of the deceased.

Scenes of grief and mourning are being replayed at hospitals, mortuaries and crematoria across the city. Outside these premises, families cluster on lawns and parking lots, trying to shield their anguish from the prying eyes of news cameras. Others approach the press, granting interviews in their desperate bid for information about their missing loved ones. There are 63 registered missing, according to the Kenya Red Cross.

Donations, hot meals at street corners

But even as the scenes of grief are being replayed, the Westgate tragedy has sparked a spirit of voluntarism and community service across the city.

Blood donation drives at Nairobi hospitals and other locations have seen long snaking lines as Kenyans have turned out in overwhelming numbers to support those affected by the attack.

In just one day, a Kenya Red Cross blood drive at the Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi saw nearly 3,000 units collected.

‘We cannot be conquered,’ Kenyatta says

In his stirring Tuesday night address to the nation, Kenyatta noted that Kenyans had raised more than 60 million Kenyan shillings (around 510,000 euros) through mobile phone donation drives to help the affected.

"You have risen up as one and stood firmly with your country, your brothers and sisters," added Kenyatta. "You have also donated food, clothing and other supplies, not only for the afflicted, but also to keep the volunteers going."

At a street corner not far from the sealed-off Westgate mall earlier this week, a Kenyan family was distributing free packed meals to the security officials and journalists who had been stationed there as the siege dragged on.

Zena Anezdishes, a professional caterer, and her husband arrived at the street corner in the family car packed with baskets of food and disposable tableware.

"I have a kitchen that works so I can prepare the food. It helps me sleep better," said Anezdishes with an unassuming shrug.

Anezdishes had a Saturday appointment at a beauty salon in the Westgate mall, but she didn't make it on time because her husband delayed her.

"Those five minutes saved my life," she said. "This is my way of giving back, of giving thanks to God."

Two days after her harrowing experience in the mall, Mutungi, a music teacher, was back at work at a Nairobi school.

"When I watch TV these days, I understand the magnitude of what happened. It's like a horror movie," said Mutungi during a break in music lessons. "I had no idea it was so big, so serious. But I know that as Kenyans, we will overcome this."

 

Date created : 2013-09-25

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