Last week, Peter was in Kenya when the shooting started at the Westgate mall. He went from attending a conference to reporting live in the field. He wrote this post, originally published in Travel Weekly, about what it was really like on the ground in Nairobi, the truth about Kenya travel safety today, and why he’ll be returning to the country soon.
I was en route to speak at the Africa Hotel Investment Forum here when the shooting started at the Westgate Mall. My flight from Doha landed around 7 a.m. on Sunday, just hours after the massacre and siege had begun.
During the first part of my ride from the airport, I saw no indication that anything was different in the city. Then light traffic gave way to the harsh realities of the situation on the ground: heavily armed troops at the parliament building, then a lockdown next door at the InterContinental hotel; no cars allowed inside a hastily erected perimeter; metal detectors and security guards posted at the main entrance.
Within an hour, I was on site at the mall, reporting for CBS News. From the moment I arrived, it was clear that this was not a typical hostage situation. As a former correspondent for Newsweek, I had covered my share of standoffs, from hijackings and bank robberies gone bad to the Patty Hearst shootout in Los Angeles. The Westgate mall situation was different than any I had ever encountered.
Typically, when hostages are taken, the police are able to ascertain quickly the number and location of both the hostages and their captors. Once that is determined, time is almost always on the side of the police.
The authorities initially establish a communications line with the hostage-takers, then systematically begin to cut off electricity, food, water and other supplies. With each passing hour, the momentum hopefully begins to turn, forcing the hostage-takers into dialogue, then negotiation.
But that wasn’t the case here. First, the authorities had no idea where inside the mall the hostages or terrorists were, nor did they know the number of either.
The five-story Westgate mall comprises 80 stores, multiple entrances and exits and plenty of places to hide. Further complicating matters, all the stores were open at the time of the initial shooting, giving the terrorists almost unlimited access to food, water, supplies, even clothing should they want to change their appearance.
To make matters worse, the terrorists had announced they were not interested in negotiations.
Helicopters hovered, not as attack vehicles but trying to detect any movement on the roof or even from within the mall.
As I arrived at the scene, the authorities faced a tough choice. If they proceeded along the lines of standard hostage procedures with a group that was well supplied and had no intention of negotiating, they risked losing all the hostages.
Their other option was to mount an assault and try to save as many hostages as possible. Given the circumstances, they opted for the latter.
On Sunday evening, they pulled the electricity. The security perimeter around the mall was increased to enable the placement of snipers with night vision-equipped weapons. And the operation began.
It was slow going. Police and army units, assisted by Israeli advisers, moved quietly into the building at a very slow pace, not knowing if the hostages and terrorists were located in one central area or dispersed throughout the mall. Foot by foot, store by store, the assault team moved on, never knowing if a place had been booby-trapped.
Within a few hours, they got lucky and were able to find, then extract, a number of people who for hours had been trapped in the mall and hiding from the terrorists.
By 4 a.m. on Monday, the team still had not confronted the terrorists. There was sporadic gunfire but no confirmation of any hard numbers or casualties. From our vantage point, about 600 yards from the building, we saw no movement until, suddenly, more troops arrived in armored personnel carriers and took up positions around the building.
Even then, things remained relatively quiet until about 12:45 p.m. Monday. As I was preparing to go live for CBS, troops mounted a full-on attack. A series of massive explosions ripped the mall as grenades were launched. Clouds of black smoke rose in the air, followed almost immediately by rapid automatic weapons fire. Bullets were flying everywhere, and even our position wasn’t safe. Journalists ducked and hit the ground behind cars, trees, anything we could find.
Within three minutes, all was silent again, but the black smoke only thickened as fire spread inside the mall. Though the fire department was on the scene, concern about unexploded ammunition apparently resulted in a decision to let the fires burn. Soon, army trucks were speeding from the scene, carrying wounded and dead — how many we didn’t know.
The government announced that everything was “under control.” Translation: They had essentially secured the area but still didn’t know what awaited them inside. Nor would they know for at least two more days.
The images on TV were compelling and disturbing. Stories about survivors and about families of the deceased were beginning to be told.
As all this was unfolding, Kenya’s president and foreign minister were holding back-door discussions with the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office asking them not to issue industry-killing travel advisories or warnings. In fact, however, the U.S. State Department had already issued such an advisory on July 5, warning citizens that Kenya might be targeted for attacks by terrorist groups.
At the airport, which was operating normally, American and British travelers were crowding the terminals, trying to catch the next flight out. Local churches were full, with some scheduling additional services to accommodate the crowds who came to pray. Kenyans and expats alike responded en masse to calls for blood donors.
On a personal level, I began receiving dozens and dozens of email messages from friends “praying for you” and advising me to “get out of there immediately.”
By Tuesday, the siege was over. And authorities began the painstaking forensic work of trying to piece together not just an accurate timeline of events but a postmortem profile of each terrorist and how each had come to be in Nairobi. Some reportedly had been carrying U.S., British or Canadian passports.
The police worked to establish a chain of custody of weapons and ammunition and tried to retrieve the terrorists’ cellphones to connect as many dots as possible. Were others still in Kenya? Were others in nearby Somalia? Were there additional “persons of interest”? This work will take weeks.
Facing the harsh reality of the situation, Kenyan tourism officials worked overtime to get the message out that “we are open for business,” hoping against hope that their tourism numbers would not flatline.
For a country where nearly 12 percent of GDP is tourism, where 20 percent of foreign cash revenue comes from travel and tourism, Kenya could ill afford this kind of a hit.
At the same time, 10 minutes away from the still-smouldering remains of the Westgate Mall, it was business as usual. Tourists continued to arrive at the airport and head out into the Masai Mara.
The African Hotel Investment Forum went off as planned, with fewer than 10 percent cancellations. And while folks expressed concern, everyone I spoke to, without exception, said they did not feel unsafe. That included me.
Will I return to Kenya? And soon? The answer to both questions is yes.
Still, the worst four-letter word is fear, and what remains to be seen is whether perception will unfairly trump reality. As I left the scene, my cab driver was clearly worried.
“Without visitors, I cannot put food on my table. I cannot feed my family or pay for the fuel in this car,” he said. “This is all so very sad, and I only hope God can help us. We really need him now.”
Don’t miss Peter’s previous reports reports:
- The Attack on the Nairobi Mall
- How the Nairobi Mall Attack Will Impact Kenya Tourism
- Travel Detective Blog on the Ground in Nairobi
By Peter Greenberg for Travel Weekly