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Close to Home: Terror in a familiar family mall

  • The author is shown on a reporting trip in Somalia in 2009. (COURTESY PHOTO)

The photos that have emerged from the terrorist attack at a Nairobi mall over the weekend paint a surreal picture: Camouflaged Kenyan commandos sweeping past boutiques selling designer handbags; bloody bodies sprawled out on a shiny tile floor in front of fountains and glass elevators; scared shoppers of many different nationalities running for the exits.

The Westgate mall is Nairobi's chicest, most modern shopping complex. A gathering spot for well-heeled Kenyans, Indians and Western expatriates, it would be considered upscale in any major U.S. city.

In my three years living in Nairobi as a journalist, I frequented the Westgate mall at least once a week to eat fresh baked croissants at the stylish ground-floor café, read the latest edition of Time magazine at the book store, dine on gourmet sushi or catch a movie in the spacious cinema.

My daughter Sophia, who was 2 years old at the time, enjoyed riding the mechanical horses in the food court. Because of its perceived safety, the mall was popular with families with young children.

For me, the mall was a sanctuary, a bastion of western commercialism to escape to after weeks-long reporting trips to various war zones around East Africa. On Saturday, Somali terrorists stormed the mall, killing at least 60 people, injuring 175 and bringing the war to the heart of Kenya, a mostly stable and peaceful U.S. ally. The Kenyan army has been fighting Somalia's al-Qaida-linked Islamist rebel group, al-Shabab, in and around the Somali capital, Mogadishu, for the past three years. The rebels say the mall attack is revenge for the Kenyan offensive.

Somalia has been embroiled in more than two decades of civil war, and its homegrown Islamic terror movement is a product of the country's anarchy. With no government or economic prospects, young Somalis have latched onto radical leaders espousing a Taliban-like doctrine.

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