Defiant return of Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall

The Westgate Shopping Mall is expected to re-open on Saturday.

The Westgate Shopping Mall is expected to re-open on Saturday.

On 21 September 2013, gunmen from terror group al-Shabaab stormed Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall sparking a four-day siege in which at least 67 people were killed, scores injured and large parts of the shopping centre destroyed. This was the deadliest attack on Kenya since the 1998 US embassy bombing, and businesses operating at the mall incurred billions of shillings in losses.

This Saturday, Westgate will reopen with over 90% of its original tenants, while new tenants include American restaurant chain Pizza Hut. The first phase of the mall’s reconstruction cost an estimated Ksh.1.7bn (about US$17m).

The last 22 months have been “difficult times”, says Alex Trachtenberg, a director at Sony Holdings, owner of the Westgate mall. In the aftermath of the attack, photos captured what had been left of the once imposing yellow building – a collapsed upper parking lot, shattered windows, walls scarred with bullet holes, burning cars in the parking lot, and blood splattered on the floors.

“It was [challenging] to enter the building for the first time and see what had happened. It took quite a bit of time to reorganise my mind… and… to even have the will of [rebuilding the mall]. There were a lot of emotions as you would expect. So of course it was hard, but we managed to do it – and we are happy it has reached this stage today.”

On Tuesday Trachtenberg, together with Nairobi governor Evans Kidero and Atul Shah, managing director of retailer Nakumatt Holdings, toured the refurbished shopping centre. Located in an affluent suburb, Westgate was an attraction to expatriates and wealthy Kenyan shoppers.

Trachtenberg says rebuilding Westgate wasn’t just important for Sony Holdings alone but also for Kenya and for those who were killed.

“I have been living in Kenya for the last 23 years, so I am part of Kenya. I am proud that [Westgate] is opening despite of what happened. I think because of the people who died here it was very important for us to rebuild Westgate and to show that [terrorism] cannot defeat Kenya.”

Some of the brands opening shops at Westgate include international footwear franchise Bata, audio equipment company Bose, Kenyan coffee chain Dormans, East Africa’s largest retailer Nakumatt and US fast food brands KFC and Subway.

“This shows the faith [traders] have in this place and their solidarity to fight [terrorism],” says Trachtenberg. “There are more people who wanted to come but we don’t have space.”

Only five of the original 80 tenants surrendered their shops, and they have been replaced by new ones. Trachtenberg says phase two of the reconstruction will feature an additional 30 to 40 shops.

Despite the massive losses and the struggles of the last 22 months, Trachtenberg remains undeterred. He says his experiences in Israel, a country which has faced many attacks, has had an influence on him.

“The country I am coming from, we can never be defeated by these things. It has happened to us more than in Kenya unfortunately.”

Trachtenberg added he was motivated by his faith in God and the people he felt committed to and was determined not to let down.

The Westgate mall owner hopes to see Nairobians turn up in large numbers when the mall reopens, and assures them security will be in top gear. Westgate has been working with Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) to implement security measures.

“[US President Barrack] Obama coming here [next week] is a demonstration that Nairobi is safe,” says Governor Kidero.

In memory of those killed, Sony Holdings and the Nairobi County government are constructing a memorial park a few metres away from the mall.