NAIROBI, Kenya – The day before terrorists seized Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall, International Mission Board (IMB) missionary Bert Yates was there.
“How long will it be before terrorists make good their threats and attack a public place such as this?” she thought to herself. Less than 24 hours later, her thoughts became a reality.
Yates and her husband Jack live only a block from the mall. For four days, the tragic events of the mall’s takeover and hostage crisis unfolded around them. By the time it was over, as many as 200 people were dead, hundreds were traumatized and over 175 wounded.
Kenyan authorities continue the grim task of recovering victims buried beneath the rubble of the internally collapsed building. A combination of multiple explosions and intentionally set fires caused sections of the mall to give way.
Militants of the Somali-based al-Shabaab organization seized the mall Sept. 21 in retaliation for what they called Kenya’s interference in internal Somali affairs. They used automatic weapons and hand grenades to seize hostages and take control of the modern upscale mall, killing at least 60 who were inside when the militants stormed the building.
Yates and her husband heard the gunfire and explosions, and watched as helicopters hovered over their house for 72 hours before the crisis was over.
“I would often stop, especially after times of sporadic blasts and firing, and think how calm and normal things were in our house and garden,” Yates said. “People were suffering only a short distance away in ways that I could not even imagine. To be so close, but so separated, was a surreal experience, eerie. But really, there is no good, defining word.”
Photo by Bert Yates
International Mission Board Missionary Bert Yates reported that helicopters hovered over her home near Westgate mall for 72 hours before the terrorist takeover of the Nairobi, Kenya mall finally ended.
Terrorists managed to hold off Kenyan security forces for four days before Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was finally able to announce the end of the ordeal.
IMB missionaries Chris and Jamie Suel, along with their five children, had walked into the mall shortly before the terrorists, who burst in and began firing automatic weapons and throwing hand grenades. When the Suels arrived, they decided to go their separate ways – Chris with one child and Jamie with four. It was only after five harrowing hours that they were reunited.
For three hours Jamie and the four children hid behind stacks of packaged flour in a storage area.
“I remember thinking on the way in that the flour would be good, protective from bullets,” she said. They heard the sounds of hand grenades, machine guns and helicopters as they hid.
Using her cell phone, Jamie managed to maintain contact with her husband and other members of the Kenya Baptist Mission. Chris and a son were on a different floor at the other side of the mall.
“After a while, some men identifying themselves as police started yelling that it was OK, it was clear, come out, it was OK,” Jamie said. “I didn’t trust it at all. I called Chris, and while everyone else left he told me that it was not clear and I should not leave. After hanging up I heard a barrage of gunfire. I thought they had been massacred. I prayed God would put a protective bubble around us so we would not be seen or heard.”
Eventually, when all seemed clear, Jamie and her four children made their way to safety.
As the attack on the mall commenced, Chris and his son tried to find the rest of their family. They had to turn back, however, as bullets struck the escalator they were on, ricocheting everywhere. They hid in a store where workers shut and locked its doors.
“The gunshots kept going non-stop for 10 minutes,” Chris said. When they stopped he was able to reach Jamie by phone and learn she and their four children were OK, hiding elsewhere in the mall.
“For the next five hours grenades and gunshots could be heard,” he said. “We were getting phone calls telling us that it was a terrorist attack, and terrorists were pretending to be police to lure people from their hiding spots.”
Two hours after his wife and their four other children made it to safety, Chris and their son were able to flee and join them at the Yateses’ home nearby.
“We are certain that among the greatest moments of joy of our lives, is when Jack and I spotted Jamie and the younger kids walking towards us, and then as we received the gift of giving them hugs,” Yates said. When Chris and their older son escaped, they were met by a co-worker.
Debbie McFerron, an IMB missionary who lives a two-minute walk from the mall, sent out continuous reports and prayer requests as events unfolded over the four days.
“Hearing barrages of gunfire, the blasts of grenades and the roar of low-flying police and army helicopters were all constant prayer reminders,” McFerron wrote on Facebook and a personal blog she and her husband maintain.
“Pray that even as people’s thoughts ran to God during the crisis, they would continue to run to God as daily life resumes,” she wrote in the aftermath of the crisis.
While both the terrorists and Kenyan security forces used social media to propagate their victories during the siege and hostage situation, Yates extolled social media’s value for raising prayer support.
“As I shared on one of my Facebook work pages, ‘Thank you for your prayers. You have definitely reaffirmed my belief in Facebook and social media being incredible prayer tools!’” she wrote.
The prayer value of social media was also affirmed when news of the Westgate mall being on fire was posted on Facebook and in various blogs, including IMB’s CompassionNet page on Facebook, Yates said.
“Based on what I can document and intelligent guesses, more than 10,000 people viewed this prayer item within a few hours,” she said.
Retired IMB missionary Sharon Pumpelly shared on her church’s Facebook page a prayer request she received from Nairobi. It was about a young family who lost their lives in the attack on the mall. The woman, a Harvard graduate, was 8-and-a-half months pregnant.
“We have a [missionary] friend who is out in Kenya ministering to pregnant couples,” Pumpelly wrote. “After a birthing class, one of the couples went to the mall.”
Pumpelly’s friend, a missionary with Africa Inland Mission, shared, “It breaks my heart to say that we lost expectant parents and their unborn baby in this attack. These parents were very happy, excited and ready for their little one to arrive.”
Found dead on the floor of the mall, the man cradled his wife in his arms, one hand draped protectively over her pregnant stomach. He was a recognized architect, having designed free of charge an HIV-AIDS hospital in Kenya. She was a well-known malaria specialist working in Kenya with the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
“Please pray for these families as they have lost so much,” Pumpelley’s friend said, “and please pray for our team as we embrace the people here at our training center, that God would prepare our hearts and minds.”
Not far from Westgate mall is Rosslyn Academy, a Christian school that many children of missionaries attend. Students there initiated outdoor prayer services on Wednesday in response to three days of national mourning declared by President Kenyatta the day before.
“It has been extremely difficult for the Rosslyn community and for Kenya,” a school spokesman said. “While we are grateful that none of our staff or students lost their lives, a few students were seriously injured and at least one lost a beloved parent. The support of the teachers and the community has been amazing, but the days ahead will be hard.”
McFerron said, “The Kenyan spirit through all of this is amazing. They are coming out in droves to give blood. Many businesses are donating food and water to the injured in hospital and to the police, army and media personnel on the ground at the mall. They have set up a Twitter site with the name @we-are-one, and folks are writing amazing tweets of encouragement, many using scripture.”
Tim Tidenberg, IMB strategy leader for East Africa, wrote, “Living very near what is left of the Westgate Mall, the last few days have been ones of shock. As we watched the terrorist situation unfold, we continued to go to the promise of a faithful God and to His presence with us.”
“Today (Thursday), the mission community met together for a time of prayer – a time to encourage and to see each other face to face,” he said. “As we met, the subject of His faithfulness again came to the forefront. In days such as these, we must keep our eyes on Him.”
While reflecting on the trauma she and her family went through, Jamie Suel said, “These things happen. It’s sometimes the cost of doing [mission] business. It is the reason we are here. Only Christ can penetrate this evil. He called us, we obey and stay until He releases us. Sometimes living in the center of God’s will is dangerous. Dangerous, but God is good. I’m praying that God will use this to bring glory to Himself, which He always does.”
Through its Member Care ministries, IMB provides counseling service to missionary families when they experience trauma like that in Nairobi.
Tim Cearley, a senior IMB strategy leader in Africa, said, “We are so thankful for God’s protection over our personnel during the recent trouble in Kenya. Of course our personnel were greatly affected as they waited, prayed and heard gunfire, explosions and screams. As well, our hearts go out to all the people of Kenya. So many people in Nairobi are deeply grieving the loss of the sense of a peaceful and safe place to live.
“Now we ask that people pray for peace and for healing,” Cearley added. “Pray, too, that believers will have opportunities to share the hope they have within them, and the true source of their peace.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Charles Braddix is an International Mission Board writer based in Europe.)