Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Westgate- It is finally over.....

A Saturday that had begun on a happy note and had rapidly turned into a nightmare was about to come to an end. We were finally all together and home safe after my son's return from the birthday party but hundreds of others in Nairobi waited desperately for news of their loved ones. We had switched on our television set as soon as the news had broken and we were continuously glued to it. Given our residential compound's proximity to Westgate, we were in the ambit of the Kenya Police helicopters and the military camouflage patterned plane that were doing rapid rounds of the area. The only thing we usually use our television for is to watch the news and that too the news as it unfolds in India. Now for the first time since our arrival in Kenya we were rapidly flicking through all the Kenyan news channels, hungry for any morsel of news that we could get about Westgate.
The sales person promoting the Wipro Unza products was at Nakumatt Westgate that day as she would be on any other normal day. I kept telling myself that if she did not get out alive, I would blame myself for the rest of my life. No logic-it is just the way the mind works in such situations.Mercifully my husband was able to find out later in the day that she had escaped safely after hiding in the store for a couple of hours after the attack began.
We watched on live televison as people were rescued and came running out or stumbling out or were carried out.We waited up till midnight hoping against hope that the crisis would be over and the hostages would be freed. We knew there were many more people  inside as we know how crowded Westgate is every weekend. In fact my husband used to joke that if you are an Indian or a person of Indian origin, it is mandatory that you visit this mall each weekend! I loved the way the sales figures of the Wipro products skyrocketed each weekend in all the malls and as my husband gets the sales breakup of each Nakumatt branch everyday, I used to always observe that the Westgate Nakumatt Branch more often than not had the highest sales given the high number of footfalls there! Someone else, it seems, used similar statistics to plan and execute this attack in this particular mall...
A disturbed night's sleep punctuated by thoughts of people who were still trapped inside led to a Sunday that began on a very sombre note. The choppers and plane began doing the rounds again and we knew even before we had switched on the televison that it was not over yet...And it continued throughout the day with tragic stories of what had transpired that day from the mouths of eyewitnesses and survivors. We know every inch of this mall. So we could relate to every single picture that they were showing about the scene inside. As we identified each location the whole scene looked even more unbelievable and horrifying to us. Our thoughts and prayers were with those who had lost loved ones. If we were in this mental state, only God knew what they were undergoing. This is the first mall I ever visited in Kenya, given that it is right next to the service apartment complex that we stayed in when I came to scout for schools in Kenya, before the children and I decided to move here. This is the mall where I dropped off my then about to turn fifteen daughter a day before we all left for India for the holidays at the end of last May. It was her school friend's birthday party and it was the first time ever that I was leaving her with a group of friends with no adult supervision. After I had dropped her right up to Java coffee house in Westgate where her friends were waiting, I had messaged my sister that I had taken the first big step towards letting go. And she had asked me if it was safe. I have my answer even today on my Whats Aap and I quote," Oh yes, the malls are absolutely safe and Westgate has a lot of security.."
Monday began with sniper mounted choppers whirling overhead. The school had given us the option of not sending the kids and given our location, we chose not to send them and spent the day watching the news.
By four in the evening thick smoke began swirling upwards from Westgate.Loud and rapid explosions began as the operation to end the siege reached a critical stage. Now we had come to a point where what we were watching and listening to on our television screen was also what we could see and hear from our rear balconey. This was a first for us and to add to that we could smell the smoke too.. I had tears in my eyes, which I struggled to control for my son's sake, as I thought of the victims inside and those striving to free them and also because a lovely place was being ravaged.
Another night spent tossing and turning, another dawn with sniper silhouettes against the sky,with no news of the end. By now every sound had began to sound like gunfire or blasts to us- the dryer of our washing machine, a car door being slammed, the carpenter hammering away while renovating a flat a couple of floors below us, the toddler next door banging away on his iron safety door, the flush in the washroom...The news we got that day from my daughter's friends was that my son's school bus friend had been injured in the attack finally broke my defences and I burst into tears. Surprisingly my son who cannot bear to see me cry was the one who rose to the occasion and consoled me and said his friend would be fine and that I should not worry.
Finally by Tuesday night, after another day of keeping the children home, there was confirmed news that it was over. I messaged family and friends who had been so worried about us, that one part was over. I know the other part has just begun. While watching the smoke over Westgate, my son had said that he wanted his Westgate back! He said he had so many good memories there. I know. I have the same memories too. As do my husband and daughter And I promised him that yes, Westgate will rise again, like Phoenix, from the ashes rose, and we will go there again. No one can stop us! The only difference will be that we will pay a silent homage to those who died there that day and we will salute those who risked their lives to save others there, every time we run up those familiar steps.They died but the Kenyan spirit did not die and will not die..

Sunday, 22 September 2013

We Could Have Been At Westgate....

Yesterday, 21st September, was not a typical Saturday for us. It was a day when there was going to be a deviation from our normal routine. A normal Saturday finds us starting our day slightly later than usual, then my husband drops off our son for his cricket coaching and then heads out to see the latest stock and sales position in many of the malls and shops that carry the Wipro Unza products, meets the promoters and addresses any concerns that they may have and takes actual on ground feedback. More often than not he lands up going to the distributor's office to discuss issues that may have cropped up in the previous week or that need to be handled for the forthcoming week. Our daughter spends the morning studying and then both the kids head out for art class after lunch.
But, yesterday, as per plan, was going to be different. My daughter and I had been invited by one of the teachers in our school along with seven other teachers, to visit an NGO called Heshima which meets the needs of differently abled children, by selling products under the label Dignity Designs, made by the mothers of these very children. This ensures their financial imdependance, skilled therapy for the kids and the right to lead a dignified life. So early last morning we hopped onto the school van from a predesignated place which was the very popular Java coffee shop near the school and my husband dropped off our son to his classmate's house whose parents were taking the boys out to a resort on the outskirts of Nairobi to celebrate their son's birthday. He would be out all day and my daughter and I were to come back home after lunch.
Then my husband headed out towards Westgate, which he had visited exactly forty eight hours before, on Thursday. Stock positions there were running low and he wanted to ensure deliveries had been made as per schedule just before the huge weekend crowd of shoppers thronged this mall. Halfway there, thanks to modern technology, he read a mail on his phone from his boss, asking him to urgently give some details about another matter. So he asked the driver to turn around and take him back home so that he could respond immediately.
In the mean time, after our fruitful visit to the organisation, my daughter and I, along with the teachers had stopped for lunch at yet another popular mall similarly crowded with shoppers. A quick lunch and we were on the way back home when one of the teachers got a call from her husband asking where exactly we all were. Then he updated her about the tragedy unfolding at Westgate and asked that they avoid that area on their way back to the school. So we were dropped off across the road from our house and the teachers rushed back by an alternative route. Our car picked us up as it's not the wisest thing to walk around on the roads and we heard the first updates about the situation on the car radio. I called up my husband and told him to turn on the television.
Westgate is in the same area we stay in,Westlands, and is a less than a ten minute drive in heavy traffic from our house. Whenever people in India ask me about the security situation in Nairobi I tell them the malls are absolutely safe! Westgate is the only place, in fact, where I used to feel safe enough to go and watch a Bollywood movie as they have guards systematically checking you no matter from which entrance you come in. In fact I had mentioned to my sister on facebook just the previous day that I would be watching the critically acclaimed new movie 'Lunchbox' this weekend, where else, but at Westgate.The Nakumatt at Westgate is where we buy our groceries most often and that branch of Planet Yogurt is most frequented by us. As we watched live on television some of the blue coated  Nakumatt staff rushing out,some of them carrying kids to safety, I thanked God that at least some of the people who cheerfully serve us day in and day out were safe.
A call to my son's host confirmed that she was aware of the situation and they, too, would be taking an alternate route back to their house as they brought the boys back from the birthday party venue. Again I thanked God they had not chosen Westgate as their party venue. We heard that someone else from our school was actually having their party at Westgate at that hour. My son was home finally by 6:30 p m and my heart was in my mouth till then.Many little children who were at Westgate yesterday did not make it out...
In the meantime, everyone around us was talking of whom they knew who was hurt or dead. Disturbing images were being circulated on the social media and this brought back memories of 26/11 in Mumbai.
Police choppers and planes began circling continuously overhead, as they are even now thirty hours after the siege has begun, even as I messaged our small group of friends asking each if they were safe. I called up immediate family in India and gave them the news first hand as all of them are well acquainted with Westgate.
What if my husband had made it to Westgate if the mail had not made him turn around? What if many malls had been simultaneously targeted including the very large and popular one where we had had our lunch? What if the birthday party venue had been Westgate? What if the attack had been planned for the evening when we would have surely been there for the movie? What if the breakfast crowd at the coffeehouse from where the teachers picked us up had been targeted as well, given that it's location is very close to the United Nations East African Headquarters?
The school sent us a mail telling us of the tragic death of a parent in the shootout at Westgate. His daughter was injured but is recovering. Ironically on the evening prior to the attack I had read out a story to my son in my mother tongue Marathi about how a mother monkey first tries to save her baby by holding it above her head as the water level of the river rises. But as it keeps on rising she stands on the baby to elevate herself in an attempt to stay above the water. My daughter was listening too and all  three of us vehemently agreed that any mother (or father) would always save the baby first never mind if they died in the attempt. The most precious life is your own, that is, until you are blessed with a child whether biological or adopted. That, I am sure, is what happened during yesterday's tragic events and many parents protected their babies or died doing so....
The siege continues with hostages still holed inside. Now I am just praying that there are no children still trapped inside. My nine year old son is hoping if, God forbid, there are children there, they are helping themselves to Nakumatt's stock of candies, peanut butter, Nutella and bottled drinking water.
O child, if only life was just about chocolates and Nutella it would not be called life.....

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