Israelis emerge from Nairobi mall hit by terror

Israeli survivor of siege tells "Post" he is unsure of his future in Nairobi and he is "very proud to be Israeli.”

Shopping mall attacked by terrorists in Kenya 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Shopping mall attacked by terrorists in Kenya 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For Yariv Kedar, choosing to lunch on a café terrace rather than inside the restaurant’s walls ended up a matter of life and death on Saturday afternoon.
“I was having a business meeting lunch with a colleague,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday morning, on a Skype call from Nairobi. “We were just sitting there quietly. Then we heard a bomb and another bomb.”
Kedar, 53, and his colleague were sitting on the café’s balcony, which projects from the capital city’s Westgate mall over the street below. As they sat at their table, the colleagues soon heard a series of grenades, followed by rounds of automatic weaponry, he explained.
“They shot and shot and shot,” he said.
At least 68 people were killed in an attack that began Saturday noontime in the luxury shopping mall, allegedly launched by the Somali Islamist group al- Shabaab.
Among those trapped in the mall were several Israelis, including business owners of shops in the mall as well as weekend visitors like Kedar.
All of the Israelis trapped in the mall at the time of the attack left safely, and one was slightly injured, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson.
Yaki Opez, Israel’s deputy ambassador in Kenya, said that initially there were likely more than 10 Israelis in the mall, but that some managed to escape early on in the attack.
Ultimately, he explained, three were left stuck as hostages in the building until their rescue.
“At any given time on a Saturday lunchtime there would be at least that number,” he said.
In response to media reports that Israeli security officials were advising Kenyans about the situation, Opez stressed that “we cannot comment on any security related manners.”
From their spot on the Israeli owned ArtCaffe terrace, Kedar said that he and his colleague could see the onslaught of shooters entering the mall and slaughtering a security guard on the street below. As the attackers began shooting upward and into the balcony, a man just next to him was struck, he continued.
“When we saw them shooting toward us, I dived on the floor with my colleague,” Kedar said. “While we were on the floor, the shooting kept on going and going.”
“People said it was a robbery that went wrong,” he continued.
“I said, no way.”
At this point, a number of people who had been lunching on the terrace rushed into the café proper for cover. The attackers later entered the café, firing at the customers with automatic weapons, Kedar described.
Lying on the floor with his colleague for 10 minutes while hearing the shots banging inside, Kedar said he sent an SMS to a friend working in security, who was able to contact the Kenyan Security Ministry as well as the Israeli Embassy in Nairobi.
“I was worried they would come to the balcony and shoot us,” he said.
At that point, Kedar said he abandoned all of his Israeli identification documents because “the worst citizenship to have in that case was Israeli citizenship.”
Then, he and his colleague eyed their escape route options, and rather than jumping into the street – which they briefly considered – the two identified a small gate on the balcony. Running down the street, the colleagues managed to escape from the mall about 35 to 40 minutes from the first explosion, Kedar said.
Once safe, Kedar was able to get in touch with some of the other Israelis as well as a UN official trapped in the building via SMS, and said he directed rescue forces toward their whereabouts.
Kedar spoke of the sheer brutality of the attackers, describing incidents he heard about in which a storeowner was shot in the head while a woman next to the retailer was simultaneously stabbed.
While this is the first brush with terror Kedar has experienced firsthand during his seven years in Kenya, an employee of his workplace was recently killed in another attack, he said.
Kedar – who serves as head of the agriculture division of the horticulture development firm Amiran Kenya – said that two months ago he had sent a 24- year-old student employee to provide agricultural guidance to a community near the Somali border, in conjunction with the Red Cross. Al-Shabaab rampaged that site as well, and despite a successful run to the police station, the student and police officers were shot dead, Kedar explained.
Despite the dangers, Kedar said that he plans to stay in Kenya, as the work in food security and agricultural training that he and his colleagues are doing is a source of pride for Israel.
“I am very proud to be an Israeli,” Kedar added. “Kenyans love Israelis. Kenyans are very good friends to Israelis and they respect Israelis a lot.”
While agreeing unequivocally that Kenyans in general are friendly to and “highly supportive” of the Jewish state, another Israeli Nairobi resident was not as certain that he and his family would remain in the African nation.
“Events like these put everything in doubts and uncertainties.
We live in a small community in a vulnerable area,” said Albert Attias, 61, who is the president of Nairobi’s Jewish community.
Attias’s wife, Rina, 57, was the last Israeli to emerge from the Westgate mall on Saturday, and he said that they are deliberating about their future. The Attiases own several businesses in Kenya and have been living there since 1981.
While his wife was trapped in the mall for six hours, Attias said he was able to keep constantly in touch with her through SMS. Through his wife’s point of view, Attias described attackers scattering all over the mall where at least 1,000 people were hiding.
“They were moving from place to place picking people, demanding that they would say an Islamic prayer,” Attias told the Post on Sunday through Skype. “Whoever could not say the prayer was shot dead.”
Stressing that it took a long time before rescue forces entered the mall, Attias described how “slowly, slowly people were rescued from the different areas and removed from the mall.”
It was crucial for him to communicate with his wife by SMS only, as the attackers were shooting people whose phones rang, according to Attias.
“Luckily she was rescued and was not injured and unharmed,” he said of his wife.
“Now she’s undergoing a trauma recovery.”
Although several of the stores in the mall are owned by Israelis, Attias said he did not have an opinion as to whether the attackers targeted the facility for that reason.
Like Kedar, who has daughters in Israel, Attias and his wife have two sons in Tel Aviv, and their daughter just moved back to Kenya. The Nairobi Jewish community comprises about 500 people, most of whom are Israelis, he said.
“We are trying to survive and live here, but I really do not know what people will think to do in the future,” Attias said.
“Now unfortunately Kenya has started to feel the threat that Israel has been suffering.”Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.