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Kenya: Countering mindless terror with love

Pauline Wanjau, AHAPPY program manager, AJAN

The spirit of the Good Samaritan came alive in the self-sacrificial love shown by people from all walks of life in the wake of the mindless terror attack that struck Kenyans on 21 September. This was the day terrorists stormed Westgate, a busy upscale shopping mall in Nairobi and killed more than 70 people.

When terrorists targeted the American Embassy in the city centre in 1998, I was with the rest of my family in our apartment a few kilometres from the scene. An explosion shook the building; at first we thought it was a powerful earthquake but Dad was sure it was a blast. The news that terrorism had reared its ugly head in our city emerged soon afterwards. Over 200 lives were cut short by the actions of people who have no regard for life. Many others were wounded. I prayed such a terrible thing would never happen again.

Sixteen years later, on an ordinary weekend, terror struck again at Westgate. Yet, in spite of the extreme danger of venturing anywhere near the scene of the massacre, there was a beautiful display of human kindness. People from different religions, races and any other imaginable divide went into the mall as the shootout continued, some many times over, to bring hostages out. These were ordinary people, no bulletproof jackets, no weapons and no protective gear at all, taking the biggest imaginable risk, to save lives. Some could easily have been killed as they rescued the hostages, people they hardly knew but who at that moment were the most precious.

It is a tragic feature of today’s world – going beyond religion and ethnicity – that some people kill innocents to get their point across. But the beauty of humanity is the refusal of others to be scared or despondent when the lives of their fellow human beings are in danger, despite the huge risk involved in trying to help. It is a beauty that exists in us all: the ability and willingness to rise to the occasion and confront evil with acts of love.

It was this willingness that prompted Kenyans, and some of our visitors, to heed the call to donate blood for victims of the attack. They trooped to makeshift blood donation centres set up around the country, braving the hot sun as they queued. Millions of other people donated money and material things for the victims. Members of all faiths came out to express their shock and horror, and I imagine many went down on their knees and remained there for a long time, interceding for the many hostages who could be sprayed with bullets at any minute and for the families of the massacred. What image can better define the beauty of humanity?

I was particularly touched by the testimony of a young Muslim girl caught up in the terror attack. When the terrorists told Muslims to leave, so they would be spared, she refused to move. She chose to remain there with her wounded friend, with whom she had been attending a cooking competition organised by Radio Africa. She escaped with gunshot wounds. “I said I will instead be a victor and not a victim,” she recalled.

In an interfaith dialogue forum held in Nairobi a few years ago, Fr Thomas Michel SJ, a renowned expert who lived in Muslim countries for 40 years, said the enemies of Christianity and Islam were ignorance, poverty and disunity but not differences in faith. The environment we live in should not pressure us to change our faith; rather it is a chance to enhance our faith by sharing our differences and learning from the ways of others.

This calls us to view our lives differently. How do we interact with each other, in our families and in society? The smoke at Westgate is gone now but the ashes remain thick and fresh. It is up to us to begin a journey, a journey of healing and renewal, where the beauty of our humanity will rise afresh from the ashes.

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