Facing the first anniversary of the Westgate mall massacre in Kenya, a survivor of the terror speaks out about life, family and her extraordinary ordeal.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN, October 14, 20140
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine
“The bathroom began to fill with smoke, the gunshots had stopped and we decided to make a run for it together. I remember looking to the right, thinking that if we ran into the gunmen, who we thought were robbers, we were done for. “We came to the fire exit and got to the basement and the parking lot. I remember running out towards lines of people and there were helicopters, ambulances, police. They kept gesturing to duck down. With each step, I thought I could be shot in the back.” Joanne Ball-Burgess still recalls with vivid detail the day, September 21, 2013, when she survived the Westgate shopping center attack by al-Shabab gunmen in Nairobi. A dancer, choreographer and writer, she grew up in Bermuda, the daughter of a Bermudan father and Canadian mother. Her husband, also from Bermuda, works in agriculture.
The couple always had bigger dreams than the tiny island with a population of 68,000. In the early 2000s, at the height of the second intifada, they lived in Jerusalem, where their two children were born. “If I thought of anything like terrorism, I would have thought it would have happened in Jerusalem. But [it happened] in Kenya, many years later.”
The couple moved to Nairobi in 2010, when Ball-Burgess’s husband was offered an agriculture consulting job on projects between up-country Kenya and South Sudan. The move proved to be an exciting opportunity for Ball-Burgess, who took up an interest in Kenyan dance, writing articles on the matter and carving out a career in East Africa in dance and music video production.
Eventually she landed the role of judge on a reality dance competition show called SAKATA, which she describes as the Kenyan version of America’s Best Dance Crew. “This is my third season and it is the No. 1 show in East Africa.”
Westgate was a relatively new shopping complex, snazzy and massive, having opened in 2007 with 106,680 square meters of retail floor space, comprising 80 stores and five floors. Ball-Burgess characterizes it as having been “the place” to go. “Whenever I had meetings and interviews and things like that [I did them there]; it was the easiest place to meet. I got my nails done and DVDs, and went there for my favorite shopping and to have my hair done. Everything was at Westgate, including Israelis selling Dead Sea salts. Many people also worked there.” Ball-Burgess describes a place for all types of Kenyans, a diverse gathering spot that included expats and locals.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 21 dawned like any other day in Kenya. There were no warnings of terror attacks, and the public was not aware that there was a threat. However, in retrospect, many would point out that Kenya’s involvement in the civil war in Somalia should have resulted in a state of alert.
The Islamist movement al-Shabab – with a flag resembling that of Islamic State, and which had alliances with other radical Islamist movements such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram – had burst on the scene in 2006. Somalia had been a chaotic, failed state for years and Islamism had provided an answer for some of its residents. Over time, it fought a long civil war with the official government and other warlords, gaining control of large swathes of the country. It threatened jihad in Ethiopia, resulting in an invasion by the Ethiopian army in 2006.
This drew in a force of African Union troops, a regional UN-style mission that sent thousands of units to help restore order. When Uganda sent troops in 2010, al-Shabab threatened terror attacks on that country. In July 2010, it bombed crowds watching the World Cup in Kampala, Uganda, killing 74. So when Kenya, which had hitherto been excluded from the African Union operation, launched a coordinated military incursion into Somalia in October 2011, in alliance with Somalia’s legitimate government, it might have expected that al-Shabab would carry out similar attacks to that of Uganda.
By February 7, 2010, Shabab had already declared a jihad on Kenya. With many Somalian refugees in Kenya and even some Muslim Kenyans having joined al-Shabab, the East African country was becoming a recruiting ground and target for terror. Ball-Burgess recalls that she almost decided not to go to Westgate that day. “I was going to yoga and to do my dance classes. I was invited to go and watch the airing of a dance show, and I was on the way to get money out of the ATM. I remember standing at the gas station and pointing, deciding whether to go to the center or another mall near Westgate. I thought, ‘I like Westgate,’ and said I’d go there to get money out of the ATM.”
We now know that four al-Shabab gunmen in civilian clothes entered the ground floor of the mall and began shooting and throwing grenades. “As I was walking out of the bathroom, I heard gunshots and people running into the ladies’ room. I was still trying to get out and didn’t understand what was happening. I remember a guy grabbing me, saying there was shooting, and I didn’t understand. There were eight of us [in the bathroom].”
Ball-Burgess recalls an Indian woman and a maintenance woman sharing one stall; they waited for several hours before the coast was clear. “We were told it was a robbery and we thought we would wait for the bullets to run out. It seemed surreal. It seemed like it wasn’t happening, like something on TV. I was in a daze.” Ball-Burgess called her husband on her cellphone.
He had heard terrorists had taken over the mall, but didn’t tell her so as not to worry her. At the time, he was at football practice with their two children. “We heard gunshots, constantly. Then the Indian lady who I was with got a text that her son and motherin- law had been shot.” Burgess believes that many of the Indians in the mall were deliberately targeted by al-Shabab because they were noticeably non-Muslim,wearing Indian-style saris or Sikh turbans. Many Indians reside in southern and East Africa, having moved there during the period of British colonial rule; over the years they have often been victims of nationalist groups such as Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda, which expelled them in the 1970s.
HIDING IN the bathroom, Ball-Burgess looked around at the group she was with. The maintenance woman was crying and she realized that if the gunmen heard them, they would be killed. “I just wished she would be quiet and that they wouldn’t hear us.” There were other people in adjoining stalls, including a security guard and members of mall management. No one seemed to have any idea of how to escape. Ball-Burgess tried removing the paneling on the ceiling to see if they could go out that way, “but it was made of foam and wouldn’t hold us.”
At some point the Indian woman, at a point of distress and despondency, decided that since members of her family were dead she had nothing to live for, and she would walk out and be killed. “I told her that we have to escape for our families.” Time passed. “We waited there in the bathroom and felt sometimes brave, then sometimes that it would end there, thinking ‘It was a good life.’ I went back and forth in my mind about the possibilities.”
It was the thought of her children that ultimately gave Ball-Burgess the strength to survive. After four hours in the bathroom, suddenly the place began to fill with smoke. “Now I think it was the tear gas; initially I thought it was smoke from fire.” The smoke gave the group impetus to escape. “The gunshots had stopped and we ran out. A bunch of people, nine others, came out from other places and some had injuries and were bloody; one guy even had his iPad out. I remember looking to the right and realizing we had to run; we thought they [the terrorists] were robbers, that if we ran into them we were done.”
The maintenance woman had told them there was a fire exit nearby. Soon they were in the basement, then out a door to the parking lot. Across the lot they could see police, circling helicopters and ambulances. The police were gesturing at them to duck down. “I was just running. I remember I grabbed someone and fell down crying on the ground. They thought I had been shot and they took me to the ambulance, and I just said, ‘Get me out, get me out of here.’” Along with other survivors she was whisked away to the Oshwal Center, where they were greeted by nuns. The large, sprawling, sandstone-colored building with Indian architectural influences is a community center for the minority Jain community with origins in India. People were praying and waiting to aid survivors.
“You could check to see if your relatives were on that list. I sent a Facebook message saying I had made it out. My mom and others were watching CNN and they were worried. My mom is Canadian and my dad is Bermudan; my Canadian family was speaking [to the TV reporters] as well as the Bermudan government.”
Ball-Burgess ran into a friend at the center, who had been driving Ball-Burgess’s car that day. She had parked outside Westgate, and when she heard the attack begin, she tried to run and ended up being in the middle of the initial shooting. “She saw a baby shot and an old man. And when I met her at the center, I didn’t know she had been through all that; it wasn’t until weeks later I had the courage to ask her what happened.”
Ball-Burgess herself was in a state of shock. “We were sitting there and I thought we could still go to the event that night. It hadn’t sunk in. It wasn’t until I began to drive home and the whole world was spinning around me… The next couple of weeks were a lot of interviews with Canadian and Bermudan newspapers, interested that I had made it out. Some Canadians had not made it.”
Burgess says the flurry of activity was a good distraction, but eventually the trauma of the event began to settle in. She visited once with the Indian woman who had been in the bathroom stall with her. “I was going to counseling and doing breathing and meditation. I was starting to get my life back. I went to her [the woman’s] house and saw the loved ones who had been lost and a cousin who had a cast on her leg, and cousins who had nightmares after seeing people shot. They could not move on with their life, but I was able to. They had lost people. And I began to ask, ‘Why me?’” Ball-Burgess has since learned more details about how she survived.
When the police gestured for the group to duck as they were running across the parking lot, she found out it was because of a gunman on the roof. “So now things began to make sense, the images that came out. I began to see the same area that I had run out of, that there were a lot of bodies. A lot of people had run in the same direction and not made it.”
Westgate was closed indefinitely and Ball-Burgess began to run into people she had known at the shops and stores she frequented before the attack. She kept a mental checklist. “I saw the hairdresser [and the] guy who used to serve me lemonade.” A woman who made jewelry was still recovering months later, but she still hasn’t accounted for some people: “One guy I haven’t seen is the man who sold books in the bookstore.”
Counseling helped her through the trauma; the counselor offered free services to the Westgate victims. “He offered different herbs and natural remedies, for restoring the body. He told me to refrain from alcohol and coffee, anything that could become a crutch and stimulant… At a certain point, I even said I wanted to talk about other parts of my life.”
Ball-Burgess says there are still situations she avoids relating to the attacks. “When I drive near the location of Westgate, I don’t want to drive past it or look at it.” But she has a practical way of looking at things; she doesn’t panic when she enters a mall or a store. Rather, she thinks, “What would I do [if something happened], would I do A, B and C?” THERE ARE still unanswered questions. After the event, some newspapers continued to refer to the killers as “militants”; others suggested it was “retaliation” for Kenya’s operations in Somalia. “I do think the media never covered how Somali Kenyans were treated afterward. There were Kenyans who lashed out at Somalis after this. That wasn’t covered adequately.” But how to commemorate the mass murder is still debated. “I do think there needed to be more commemoration. Even the Westgate space was opened up without a proper remembrance. You can drive right next to the mall and they are trying to rebuild it.” Ball-Burgess argues they should have done a ceremony to “cleanse” it, in some sort of ritual process. There was a candle ceremony, but she feels this was more to convey a simplistic and shallow message of “Let’s get on with our lives, Kenya.” “We hadn’t heard anything until about a couple of weeks ago, when we were coming up to the one-year anniversary. I didn’t go to the candle ceremony.” Instead, she attended a reading and play of stories of survivors. “Because I was there, it felt like there were two situations, the one I witnessed and the one in the play. You can’t expect someone who has not been there to present it as you experience it.” Some of the other readings and memorials related to Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, who was killed in the attack. As an author, Ball-Burgess identified and participated, but her nerves were still raw. “I couldn’t stay for some of these events, I wasn’t ready to be a part of that situation.”
Dealing with the events has also been a struggle for her children, who are seven and eight years old. “My husband and I try our best not to talk too much about it in front of our kids. They got it from everywhere; it was on TV. We tried to limit the amount of images they saw. They know I was in the Westgate [attack]… I don’t like to drive past Westgate, but my kids have talked about terrorism. I took them with me to the exhibition at the national museum. Other than that, they don’t seem affected and the counselor doesn’t think they need care.”
Her husband has understandably experienced intense emotion as well. After the event, he posted on Facebook that he could have been a widower, but didn’t discuss all of these feelings with her. The tragedy has made her more sensitive to other major terror attacks, such as 9/11. “I feel more emotional when its commemoration comes around.” She empathizes with all those who find themselves in similar circumstances. “We are all people and no matter where we are, things do happen. No matter religion, ethnicity or race, no one deserves to be in a terrorist situation. “I feel that when it happens to people, no matter which side, they are victims.”