Nairobi terrorist attack shakes campus’s Kenyan students

Creative Commons/Anne Knight/Courtesy
Crowd fleeing sounds of gunfire near Westgate shopping mall.

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In an attack that gripped nations worldwide, terrorists took over an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, causing a deadly standoff that continued through Tuesday morning. At least 60 people have died, and more than 175 people have been injured, including UC Berkeley alumna Elaine Dang.

The images of the violence halfway around the world have shocked many, but they hit closer to home for some UC Berkeley students who hail from Nairobi.

As a child, UC Berkeley freshman Winnie Itago would go to Westgate Mall after church with her cousin to get frozen yogurt — always the strawberry and mango flavors — and eat it on the rooftop. When graduate student Narissa Allibhai returned home for the summer, she and her sister would go to the mall on Saturday afternoons for lunch. UC Berkeley freshman Samuel Karani compared it to a Target but said it is smaller.

The students describe Westgate Mall as a popular hotspot for local residents, foreigners and teens. News of the shooting and shock at the violence reverberated among them, and while none of their immediate family members were injured, the attack’s emotional impact runs deep.

Almost everyone in the area knows someone connected to the attack, Allibhai said.

“You would never expect this to happen — Westgate of all places, nobody would expect it,” she said. “I didn’t process it when I first heard the news.”

Yet UC Berkeley experts familiar with the conflict between Kenya and al-Shabab, the terrorist organization that led the attack, say the threat of violence has been looming for some time. What is unprecedented is the size of the attack. The group, which has links to al-Qaida, has perpetrated minor attacks in the nation since Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia two years ago, said Julie Shackford-Bradley, a lecturer in peace and conflict studies. The 2011 invasion targeted al-Shabab strongholds near the Kenyan border, drawing retaliation from the organization in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities.

“The threat was clearly going to grow when Kenyan forces chose to intervene in Somalia,” Shackford-Bradley said. “Those are the decisions that you make when you take a military action into a neighboring country.”

African American studies professor Sam Mchombo said addressing the al-Shabab threat within the nation’s borders is difficult because large Somali refugee communities in Kenya could easily conceal terrorists from authorities.

Despite their awareness of this history, UC Berkeley students from Nairobi said they did not live in fear of terrorist attacks while residing in the city.

The Kenyan students say they have faith the area will rebound from the attack — many Nairobi residents have already donated blood and money for the victims’ recovery. Back in Berkeley, the students have been supporting each other in their own way, confirming that others’ relatives are still safe and keeping updated on the situation.

“Kenya has strong people, and Kenyans are strong people,” Itago said. “We can get through this, and we are going to get through this.”

But uncertainty remains regarding the state of the attack — as of press time, while the Kenyan police tweeted that they had control over the situation, other sources report there are still militants in the mall. For UC Berkeley graduate student Kagure Wamunyu, support from her friends has helped, but she remains worried.

“It’s harder when you’re far from home, because you can only rely on the media,” Wamunyu said. “It makes it more scary, and just talking about it is a little frustrating. You can’t help but follow every news article.”

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