Soldiers take position outside Nairobi’s Westgate mall shortly after the terror attack on Saturday. (Reuters)
I got to know of the terror attack
from a Facebook post...but it did
not say where the gunmen had struck. I panicked and called home.... My mother told me how narrow my father’s escape was.
She kept thanking God. So did I
Studying hotel management in Calcutta
He had gone to pick up a few necessities at Nairobi’s largest mall, a 15-minute drive from home, and walked out at noon. Barely five minutes later, the first gunshots shattered the calm.
Tracking the carnage from Calcutta, his daughter Puja Chatterjee shudders at the thought of what might have been had her father been a bit late in coming out of Westgate last Saturday.
“I got to know of the terror attack in Nairobi from a Facebook post around 7pm, but it did not say where the gunmen had struck. I panicked and called home. It was then that my mother told me how narrow my father’s escape was. She kept thanking God. So did I,” Puja, 21, recounted to Metro on Tuesday evening.
The young woman, a student of IAM-Institute of Hotel Management in Salt Lake, was in Class IV when her family moved from Calcutta to Kenya. They used to be residents of Bansdroni.
Puja’s father, who didn’t want to be named, works for an African firm and stays in Westlands, the area in Nairobi that gave the Westgate shopping centre its name.
The mall opened in 2007, when Puja was in Class VII, and has since been among the favourite hangouts of youngsters. Puja herself had last visited Westgate in May, when she was home for three weeks.
On Saturday, her father had just returned home when friends who live a shout away from the weekend hub called to tell him of the terror attack.
Life has been a blood-soaked blur for the family since, though Puja is relieved she doesn’t have to brace for bad news about her friends. “All my schoolmates are studying abroad — in Uganda, London, Australia, Canada or, like me, in India. The quality of higher studies is not that great in Kenya.”
But not everyone among the family’s acquaintances has managed to stay out of harm’s way. “I heard that two schoolmates of a family friend’s son died in the attack. Their school, Oshwal Academy Nairobi Junior High, was to hold a prayer meeting today.”
Puja’s family tells her that life in Nairobi has been partially crippled because of the three-day stand-off between the terrorists and Kenyan forces. “My father’s office is open but the school I attended from Class V, Arya Vedic School, will be closed till Wednesday,” she said.
Her mother has spoken about the constant whirr of helicopters overhead whenever she has called since the weekend bloodbath.
The part of the city where the mall stands has been cordoned off, affecting at least one family Puja and her parents are close to. “Our family friends, the Pawars, are having a tough time commuting. As it is, they are scared to come out. They live in a hilly area along a road that leads to the mall. Their two children were so freaked out at the sound of gunshots that they had to be sent away to someone’s house in another neighbourhood,” she said.
Puja described Westgate as being much like Mani Square in the mix of local brands it showcases, but slightly smaller than South City. “We used to shop at Sarit Centre before but shifted to Westgate since it came up. The biggest draw there is the Nakumatt hypermart, which is much like Spencer’s here, selling everything from furniture to food. Westgate also has some nice restaurants like Onami, a sushi bar.”
Puja has heard that the top two floors of Westgate have been damaged in explosions. “That means the food court, the casino and Planet Media cinema are gone, as well as one floor of Nakumatt that houses the clothes section. It is unnerving to see pictures of dead people and all that blood in the mall,” she said.
Days in Nairobi are “long” and nights “very short” because it is unsafe to be out in the evening, Puja said.
“People work from 7am and get home by 6pm. It is unsafe to go anywhere on foot in the evening. The crime rate is high and Indians often get targeted as Africans think all Indians are rich.”
Wednesdays and Saturdays see much revelry and socialising, especially among expats. “There is a British colonial legacy of midweek get-togethers in Nairobi. On Sundays, people retire early. The terrorists knowingly chose Saturday to strike,” Puja said.
She has been getting a lot of calls from her father’s former colleagues in Calcutta and relatives in Jamshedpur since the shooting, each of them eager to know whether her family was safe.
The only good news she has heard in the past three days was from her father on Tuesday. He called around 6.30pm to tell her that the hostage crisis was finally over. “Now it feels as if it was all a bad dream. Everything (about the terror attack) seems so unreal, yet so many innocents had to die,” rued Puja.
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