HUNDREDS of shoppers thronged through the re-opened Westgate Shopping Mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, yesterday – nearly two years after a terrorist attack there left at least 67 people dead and badly damaged the country’s tourism industry.
Nairobi governor Evans Kidero cut a ribbon during yesterday’s reopening ceremony following two years of repairs after security forces battled four gunmen from Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group in September 2013.
The attack led to a four-day siege of the building by security forces which destroyed part of the roof when they fired rocket-propelled grenades at the attackers.
The reopening comes a week before US President Barack Obama visits Nairobi – a sign, the city’s governor said, that the capital was safe.
“Exactly 22 months ago we had one of the saddest days in Kenyan history,” Kidero said. “As a nation we cried, we mourned, but Westgate is back.”
“Today we are excited because we are back on our feet, and we can convince the world that terrorism is not bringing us down,” said Ben Mulwa, one survivor of the siege.
Kenyan Muslim Hussain Ibrahim, a resident of Nairobi’s ethnic Somali district of Eastleigh, went to the mall with his four young children to celebrate Eid.
“We were very sad when it happened. Islam does not propagate terrorism,” he said, but complained that Kenya’s response to the terror threat – which has included mass round-ups of ethnic Somalis and alleged extra-judicial killings – was isolating Kenya’s Muslims.
“It’s not getting any better: there are more and more attacks in north-eastern Kenya. The government of Kenya did a mistake, they radicalised Muslim people. We are being pushed into a corner,” he said.
Sunil Sachdeva, an orthodontist who ran a practice inside the mall with his wife, said he felt he could not return to work there.
“I didn’t leave the country, but going back to Westgate – in my opinion, you know, to me it is a graveyard,” he said. “So many people met their death there.”
Shoppers were given a 10 per cent discount for every £20 spent yesterday at the 80,000 square foot complex, which is expected to employ more than 250 staff. Fast food chain Pizza Hut will also open for the first time in Kenya.
Since Westgate, al-Shabab has continued to strike on Kenyan soil, with an even bigger massacre in April when another four suicide attackers killed 148 people in Kenya’s north-eastern Garissa University, most of them students.
The Islamist group said it carried out the shopping mall attack in response to Kenya’s military operations in Somalia.
CCTV footage showed terrified shoppers fleeing the gunmen and cowering behind counters. Many were shot as the attackers walked down the aisles of a supermarket.
All four gunmen are believed to have died during the assault.
A promised inquiry never happened and a parliamentary committee criticised what it called the laxity and unresponsiveness of security services.
The attacks have badly damaged Kenya’s economy, with the country no longer so widely seen as a bastion of stability in the region. Tourism to Kenya, famed for its national parks, wildlife and Indian Ocean beaches, has also taken a major hit.
Returning for work at one of Westgate’s coffee shops, Rachael Logilan, 23, insisted she felt safe in the renovated mall – despite her memories of being shot at and then spending five hours hiding in a storeroom as the gunmen hunted down their victims.
“Of course it was a trauma. For three months I had bad dreams,” said Logilan, one of just a tiny number of siege survivors who have taken up their old jobs.
“It’s a nice place. You can meet different people. I feel secure.”