Parisians are reeling in shock and mourning after Friday’s attacks but for those in Nairobi, our thoughts cannot help but spin back to the Westgate Mall (Sept 2013)and Garissa University (April 2015) attacks.
The tragedy is that there is no possible defense against these types of terror attacks. After the Westgate shopping centre was stormed by armed gunmen leaving over 65 dead (and the Garissa University attack where 147 were killed), there was shock, a pulling together of the community and later, anger. Thankfully I was not mourning the loss of a loved one but I felt deeply angry that a handful of individuals could cause so much death and carnage in their wake. I hated the thought of those terrorists with their warped intentions and also hated feeling fearful about going to do my supermarket shop, fearful about putting my kids on the bus to school or going to the cinema, or fearful about just doing normal day-to-day things and that resentment is still there under the surface.
How did we evolve or change our behaviour in Nairobi since the terror attacks here? By increasing security in schools, shopping centres, hotels and office buildings; and this is not comfortable to live with. Every car is checked and every person scanned. We go through this process every day, sometimes multiple times. Labour is cheap so there are security personnel from private companies everywhere. Before driving into a car park, you will be asked by uniformed security guards to stop, unlock your car, open your car boot, side doors and glove compartment. Sometimes you have to get out of the vehicle entirely so that the underside of your seat can be checked. The guard will walk around your car with a ground level mirror to check your car’s chassis and more recently, high tech, ground level scanning machines and bollards or spikes that sink into the ground have been introduced at the main airport, shopping centres and hotel entrances. And more sophisticated scanning systems are on their way.
Next, on entering the mall on foot, more security guards will ask you to open your handbag in order for it to be searched, or hand it over as you walk through a scanner similar to those found in airports. Security guards in smaller centres have hand held scanners that beep furiously when wafted around your frame. Female security guards check women and men, the men. Kids are bemused. “Why didn’t she search me Mummy, I could be carrying a bomb,” my 9 year old said on more than one occasion.
Being scanned and checked endlessly is intrusive and sometimes annoying (woe betide you if you are in hurry) but has also been grudgingly accepted as a part of life in Nairobi today. Are endless security checks the answer to living with the threat of extremist terrorism? I doubt it.
We watched helplessly as the tourist sector fell off a cliff as the rest of the world recoiled from Kenya. The subsequent Ebola outbreak in West Africa affected the East as ‘the final nail in the coffin’, even though there was never a single case found here. After the Westgate attack, the kids complained of nightmares and underwent ‘duck and cover’ drills at school. After an attack, you say that you are not afraid but of course, that’s not how you feel. Only time can go some way to healing those feelings but when a car backfires – everyone still jumps. For a few years, fireworks were banned in the city because the bangs sounded too much like grenades (at the time there was a spate of grenades being thrown into public service vehicles or minibuses). For a long while, you think very carefully about which table you choose in a restaurant and take note of emergency exits in the supermarket.
I am so sorry Paris. We already knew how these terrorists operate and the powerlessness you feel is the worst aspect of it.
Telegraph Article from July 2014: Kenya terror hoax texts causing fear for expats