The upscale Nairobi mall attacked by terrorists in 2013 plans a partial reopening on Wednesday. At least 67 people died when Al Shabaab, an African offshoot of Al Qaeda, attacked the Westgate Shopping Mall.
The siege was a blow to the heart of Nairobi’s prosperity, where malls serve espresso and hummus. New roads, and ever-present construction cranes show Kenya’s continued rise. It’s become an economic hub of East Africa, but fears of terrorism have hurt business and scared away some foreign tourists.
The reopening of Westgate, many say, is a conscious decision to defy the terrorists. Others see it as callous.
“The fact that they want to reopen Westgate mall is a bit demeaning. It really is,” says Sadia Ahmed, who, until recently, was a radio host on East FM, a Kenyan radio station popular with the region’s Asian population.
On September 21, 2013, she was recording a cooking segment on Westgate’s roof.
“Two explosions went off, and that’s when we saw people run out of the mall and onto the rooftop,” Ahmed remembers. She spent hours running and crouching amid grenades and gunshots. She’d rather the mall become a memorial park. That’s what became of the American Embassy attacked in Nairobi in 1998.
Just weeks ago, you could still see bullet holes in Westgate’s windows. Outside, there were ghostly outlines on the walls where there had once been shop signs. Then, almost overnight, the building received a fresh coat of paint. Contractors hammered as new signs went up. Westgate has the same name and logo as before the attack.
There will be a different color scheme inside the mall when it reopens, and some shops won’t return, but it will mostly look the same.
“It’s a sort of reaffirmation to citizens that look, we are resilient,” says Peter Alingo, who directs the Institute for Security Studies in Kenya. He welcomes the mall’s return, but worries poor levels of security across Nairobi are unchanged.
When mall security guards check people out with metal detectors, it’s more a matter of performance than prevention. When Alingo goes to park his car, he’s taken to asking the guards what they’re looking for in his trunk.
“They say to me they’re looking for anything that looks weird, that has some wires on it,” he says. “And, I said ‘what the heck is this? And, how are you going to deal with it once you see it?’ They have no idea.”
One guard told him, if he sees a bomb, he’ll just run for his life.
People living in the upscale neighborhood near Westgate are cautiously awaiting the mall’s return. Some say it’ll be strange at first. Resident Jyoti Dadhley says she’ll certainly shop there again, “but it will be just for … do what I need to and get the hell out.”
But Sadia Ahmed just wants to see the inside of the mall to remember.
“I will go back. Once. Just for closure. But I would never step into that mall to have a good time. Never,” she says.