Plumes of smoke coloured the air, helicopters whirred overhead, and low flying aircraft flew in lazy arcs as the siege of the Westgate mall in Nairobi, capital city of Kenya, dragged into its third day.
On Saturday, militants, believed to be allied to the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab group, stormed an upscale shopping centre in Westland neighbourhood, killing scores, wounding hundreds and taking untold numbers hostage.
On Monday, Cabinet Secretary for Interior Ole Lenku told reporters that three militants had been killed, the death toll was revised down from 68 to 62, 200 hostages had been released and security forces were apparently in control of the building. Yet the crackle of gunfire continued to echo around the posh neighbourhood, as 11 soldiers were injured in the attack and officials insisted the siege would end soon.
Chief of Defence General Julius Karangi told the Associated Press that the militants comprised a multitude of nationalities.
In a side development, the International Criminal Court at The Hague excused Kenya’s Deputy President from his crimes-against-humanity trial for a week so that he could return home to deal with the hostage crisis.
William Ruto and President Uhuru Kenyatta are on trial for crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the violence that marked the general election in 2008.
Since then, the flow of information has slowed to a trickle as Kenyan officials have maintained that revealing details could comprise operations to flush out the heavily armed militants holed up in the mall. On the streets, fear and frustration led many civilians to approach the besieged building, only to be beaten back by tear gas fired by the police.
For many Kenyans, to not know the fate of their loved ones is almost as painful as knowing they are gone. On Monday, the Ministry of Interior released the numbers of bodies in various morgues across the city, but refused to release any names. For Charity, a young schoolteacher walking from hospital to hospital, the last two days have proved difficult.
“Write it as Charity looking for Paul,” said Ms. Charity outside the M.P. Shah hospital, a short walk from the smouldering Westgate mall, “Paul, my husband, was working as a driver for some foreigners. The mzungus [foreigners] took a taxi out, but he got stuck.”
Ms. Charity last spoke to him late on Saturday night, when he sounded scared but safe. Paul’s phone battery discharged soon after; Ms. Charity has been visiting hospitals and morgues across the city, even as she keeps up a brave face for her son at home. “My inner conscience is telling me, he is in there and coming out alive.”
While the Kenyan security forces have said little beyond assuring the public that the situation is under control, unlikely transmissions have percolated the official silence and provided a rich picture of life under siege. At 9 am on Monday morning, Micheal Wasonga received a text message from his uncle. “The terrorists have told us to pray today, because we may not see tomorrow,” read the text typed in the Luo language.
“It was one long story that came as three text messages,” Mr. Wasonga said, describing how his uncle had gone to Westgate to buy a DSTv satellite decoder. Mr. Wasonga was supposed to accompany his uncle, but begged off to babysit his child.
When the attack began, his uncle ran up to the second floor where he was captured and herded into an electronics store by his captors.
As the Kenyan forces intensified their assault on the four-storey building, the militants moved their captives into another electronics showroom and garlanded the store with grenades and bombs.
“I am surrounded by flat-screen televisions,” read one section of the note. Another part claimed the militants were using hostages as human shields each time the Kenyan forces tried to patrol sections of the mall.
“Uncle said there are children in the store with him, the hostages are many,” Mr. Wasonga said, continuing to translate the message, “The terrorists picked up milk and bread from the shelves of the Nakumatt super-market and threw it to us.”
The message ended somewhat grimly, “He said he was switching off his phone,” said Mr. Wasonga, “We haven’t heard from him since.”