Families plant trees memorializing Kenyan mall shooting victims
NAIROBI, Kenya — Mourners from various races and religions – Christians, Muslims and Hindus among them – grabbed handfuls of dirt and planted saplings at a memorial ceremony Monday for the nearly 70 people killed at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall exactly one month ago.
By design, no major political or religious leaders were invited, giving the crowd of 400 or so a family-only feel. But the actions of Kenya’s security forces weighed on family members who quietly seethed over allegations and newly released video images of Kenyan Defense Forces – KDF – soldiers looting the mall.
Despite those lingering images, the organizers tried to foster a “We Are One” feeling – a chant repeated by the crowd – in the wake of an attack that saw al-Qaida-linked terrorists spare some Muslims who could recall religious phrases, leaving behind non-Muslims to be killed.
“Today we don’t come so much to mourn the departed but to remind ourselves we built a nation that all can live in, young and old, white and black, Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Jain,” said Karanja Njoroge, chairman of the Friends of Karura Forest, a sprawling urban park filled with hiking and biking trails where the memorial and tree-planting was held.
Prayers were offered to both Jesus and Allah. Mourners removed their shoes for a Sikh prayer. A squeaky junior high band from Kenya’s Indian community played, while a red-clad choir of black youngsters sang in Swahili, the national language meant to bind Kenya’s 40-odd tribes. Mourners crowded a narrow path running through the forest.
Vaishal Shah, whose friend was killed at the mall during a cooking competition for kids, said the wider Nairobi community needs to come together, and not just the 70 or so families who lost loved ones.
“The whole KDF thing is messing people up,” said Shah, who noted that he was in Boston during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, a period in which he said he had never seen a country come together so quickly. “When families hear this looting is going on even as family members are dying, it’s hard to come together when that is happening.”
Charles Njenga planted a tree for his slain 22-year-old son. Njenga was at Westgate with his three children only minutes before the gunmen began spraying bullets indiscriminately. He said he is angered by the security camera footage that surfaced over the weekend showing soldiers with full shopping bags in their hands.
“They were supposed to come and save us, not to come and loot. Why go in without anything and come out with bags?” Njenga said.
The Kenyan government on Sunday said it believes it has recovered the remains of the four gunmen seen in CCTV footage carrying out the attack. So far, one gunman has been identified: Hassan Abdi Dhuhulow, a Somali-Norwegian.
Joseph Ole Lenku, Cabinet secretary for interior, has also said that an investigation is under way concerning the allegations of looting by Kenyan troops. No results of that investigation have yet been announced.
Wendy Zhang – whose sister-in-law was shot in the arm and later died – is confused as to why her sister-in-law died from a single bullet wound to the arm. She is also angered by the looting.
“This looting is really unbelievable,” she said. “There is a disaster and they still think they can get something from there.”
Those complaints, not part of the official program, lay under the surface of the sad and somber ceremony. Njoroge, the main organizer, knows the pain and anger the families feel; his nephew died in the attack. After the new trees were planted, he asked mourning families to take in the beauty of the forest. In an interview, he said the country must remain one.
“We weren’t coming here to let out our steam against KDF,” he said. “We were here to remember this attack was an attack on the Kenyan nation. Our enemy is not KDF. It is the people who attacked us.”