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Three years later, the memories of Westgate attack linger

In the mid-morning of Saturday September 21, 2013, terrorists attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, murdering 67 people.

And 36 months later, the horrific memories remain etched in the minds of Kenyans, survivors and relatives of the victims.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, but not so much to sweep away the memories of smoke spewing from the building, images of women and children scampering for safety and the sound of four days of gunfire.

NOT BE FORGOTTEN

A visit to the mall shows an establishment that has experienced a major disaster that will not be forgotten in a hurry.

Security is extremely tight and nothing is left to chance. The new measures have perhaps emboldened shoppers, with business slowly returning to normal and children playing happily in a part of the mall.

Nakumatt supermarket, the biggest tenant at the time of the assault, has shrunk in size by more than half and its departments are scattered in various locations but management is optimistic of returning to full normalcy.

Mr Thiagarajan Ramamurthy is the Nakumatt regional director in charge of strategy and operations. He was at the mall that fateful Saturday and survived by a whisker after at least four gunmen overran security guards at the mall’s entrance and opened fire on anyone in sight.

“People are returning to the mall and that is a clear sign we will get back to normalcy. The food court is open and the coffee joints have a lot of customers. Cinema halls are mostly booked to capacity, showing people have regained confidence in Westgate. We plan to have the supermarket back on the ground floor in one year,” Mr Ramamurthy told Nation in an interview.

The four-day ordeal that saw parts of the building completely destroyed has proved very costly for businesses.

Nakumatt will spend Sh300 million to return the store to its original ground floor location.

This, after losing about Sh8 billion in business during the two-year closure of the mall. About 350 workers were transferred to other branches.

“We are very grateful to our 1.1 million customers who have stood with us during these low moments and even went to shop at other Nakumatt stores when Westgate was closed. I was there during the attack and I can tell you it was a bad experience. I feel happy when I see the shoppers frequent the mall. It is safe and we are sure it will remain the best in this region,” Mr Ramamurthy said.

BUNGLED OPERATION

Many will, however, recall the bungled handling of the siege by the security forces that eventually led to the exit of former Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku.

Mr Lenku confused and infuriated Kenyans with bizarre updates on the siege, with one suggesting the terrorists were burning mattresses.

Many will also recall that President Uhuru Kenyatta promised an inquiry into the attack. This has yet to happen.

“I will set up a commission of inquiry to see where there were lapses and how we can avoid them in future,” the President said during national prayers for healing and national reconciliation a few days after the terror at the mall.

The Westgate attack, which was the worst since the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi, was later followed by another atrocity at Garissa University College in April 2014 where 148 people, mostly students, were massacred.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

A few questions that remain unanswered in the Westgate attack include the number of attackers, what happened to them and why it took so long to neutralise them.

The military named four of the gunmen as Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and Umayr.

A report by a parliamentary committee set up to probe the attack was dismissed by MPs as “shoddy”.

The 74-page report of the joint committee of Administration and National Security, and Defence and Foreign Relations, authored under the guidance of Tiaty MP Asman Kamama, also failed to give the exact number of terrorists involved.

“On Saturday September 21 2013, attackers believed to be between 10 and 15 (number yet to be ascertained), stormed into Westgate mall and randomly started shooting. About five armed attackers burst through one of the main entrances, guns blazing, while another four entered through an underground parking lot. Explosives also went off in the building, causing some floors to cave in. It is not clear who between the terrorists and the security forces set off the explosives,” the report said.

The MPs blamed the influx of refugees as a key contributor to the deteriorating security.

Al-Shabaab members were said to be posing as refugees and finding shelter in the camps.

Its recommendation to close refugee camps and repatriate their occupants to Somalia has started being implemented.