Kenya grieves one year after Westgate mall attack

NAIROBI, Kenya - Thousands of mourners gathered in Kenya's capital on Sunday, September 21, for emotional commemorations marking a year since Somali Islamist gunmen attacked Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall and massacred at least 67 people.

The east African nation is on high alert for the anniversary, which comes just weeks after the Shebab's reclusive leader and the alleged mastermind of the Westgate attack, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a US air strike in southern Somalia.

In Nairobi's Karura forest, close to 2,500 people – many of them survivors or bereaved families – were holding inter-faith prayers and a memorial procession. A plaque bearing the names of the victims will also be unveiled.

"My life is completely shattered, it's been very hard to cope," said 62-year-old Amul Shah, whose son was among those cut down when a small group of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters walked into the upmarket mall, tossing grenades and raking shoppers and staff with machine gun fire.

Shah said his 38-year-old son was looking after children taking part in a cooking competition on the mall's rooftop when the attackers struck. "He helped several children escape from the attack, but he was not lucky himself. He was so selfless."

Shamim Allu, a radio presenter who survived the attack, is still limping and using crutches but thankful to be alive.

"I was shot so many times, that I went numb," she said.

Kalpesh Solanki, 44, was meeting with friends in a coffee shop on the third floor when the attack began. She was shot in the head but survived, saying, "I have learnt how to live positively".

Relatives of the victims will also lay wreaths of flowers at a garden in the forest where 67 tree seedlings were planted last year, and commemorations will end later in the day with a candlelight concert at the National Museum, the venue of a memorial exhibition that opened this week.

All 4 gunmen were believed to have died in the mall, their bodies burned and crushed by tonnes of rubble after a section of the complex collapsed following a fierce blaze started by the fighting. 

Appeals for unity 

The Sunday Nation newspaper named the four as Hassan Abdi Mohamed Dhuhulow, a Norwegian national of Somali origin, Somali national Mohamed Abdi Nur Said, and Ahmed Hassan Abukar and Yahye Osman Ahmed, both Somali refugees. The four were all aged between 19 and 23.

Apparently inspired by the Mumbai attack of 2008, the gunmen hunted down shoppers in supermarket aisles and singled out non-Muslims for execution. They then fought it out with Kenyan security forces before the siege was finally declared over four days after the first shot was fired.

The Shebab said the attack was revenge for Kenya's sending of troops to fight the extremists in Somalia as part of an African Union force. They have launched a string of subsequent attacks in Kenya, including a wave of massacres in the coastal region, which has badly affected the country's key tourist industry.

The head of the Kenyan Red Cross, Abbas Gullet, said it was a time for Kenyans to unite.

"When faced with such adversity, the only thing we can do is to stand together," he told mourners, reminding them that despite widespread criticism of the security forces – who were accused of incompetence and even looting shops – they were police and soldiers who lost their lives.

In an editorial published by the Sunday Nation, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also vowed the country would not give in to the Shebab.

"We have pushed with greater resolve to defeat terrorists and criminals who target innocent people living in Kenya. We have maintained our focus in Somalia, where our defense forces continue to incur heroic sacrifices to defeat terrorists and their sponsors," he wrote.

On Saturday, September 20, Kenyan police chief David Kimaiyo said security forces were on high alert for the anniversary.

"We are prepared in case of anything. Specialised units are on the ground and we have intensified patrols during this period of the anniversary," Kimaiyo told reporters. -