‘Close Your Eyes and Pretend to be Dead’: What really happened two years ago in the bloody attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall

Foreign Policy
Nairobi, Kenya
Published 21st September, 2015

Adults and children run through the mall to escape the gunmen (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
Adults and children run through the mall to escape the gunmen (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

12:55 p.m. Simon Belcher lay on his front beneath a black Range Rover, breathing deeply, wanting to unsee the pile of mangled bodies a few yards in front of him. He turned his head toward his wife, Amanda, who was hiding beneath a white 4×4 to his right. “I love you,” he mouthed silently before resting his head on the pavement.

The bullet that had struck Simon a few moments earlier passed through his torso and right arm while shrapnel from an exploding gas canister had torn into his abdomen. An unexploded hand grenade lay nearby. The masked gunmen, two of them, with military webbing slung around their bony shoulders and AK-47 assault rifles in their hands, had disappeared. Inside the mall, Simon guessed.

The blood from his wounds began to pool around him until it reached his ear, forming a seal. Suddenly, the muffled noises from within the five-story building were amplified, as if he had put a glass to a wall. Over the birdsong, car alarms, and ringing of the unanswered mobile phones of the dead and wounded, Simon could now hear gunshots, explosions, and screaming. Continue reading ‘Close Your Eyes and Pretend to be Dead’: What really happened two years ago in the bloody attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall

The End For Elephants?

Earth Island Journal
Samburu, Kenya

For two decades Koyaso Lekoloi was among the most aggressive elephant poachers in Northern Kenya. He has since retired from poaching under a government amnesty program (Tristan McConnell)
For two decades Koyaso Lekoloi was among the most aggressive elephant poachers in Northern
Kenya. He has since retired from poaching under a government amnesty program (Tristan McConnell)

Koyaso Lekoloi shot his first elephant in anger. The hundred or so that followed he killed for money. During nearly two decades as a poacher, bandit, thief, and alleged murderer Lekoloi killed more elephants than any other individual in northern Kenya until, tired of life on the run, he decided to give up poaching.

I met Lekoloi by the side of a dry riverbed just outside Samburu National Reserve in Kenya’s arid, craggy north. We sat on the ground beneath a towering acacia tree to talk. The sand flies buzzing in our ears didn’t seem to bother him. “I had a happy childhood,” Lekoloi began, speaking in the local Samburu language. The youngest of eight children born to the last of his father’s six wives, Lekoloi grew up herding livestock, like many young boys in rural Kenya. With a switch in his hand he would trail the family’s goats, cows, and donkeys as they sought out grass or leaves among the whistling thorn shrubs of the sandy East African bush. There were no schools in or near his village of Larisolo, an hour’s walk northwest of Archers Post, so formal education was neither offered nor sought. “I never even went to nursery school,” Lekoloi told me. Continue reading The End For Elephants?

Hearts and Mines

Delayed Gratification
Voi, Kenya

Campbell Bridges’ Scorpion Mine in southern Kenya (Tugela Ridley)
Campbell Bridges’ Scorpion Mine in southern Kenya (Tugela Ridley)

On a cool Tuesday morning in August 2009 Campbell Bridges awoke to shafts of dawn light falling across his plank-walled bedroom high in the boughs of a white flowering mwarange tree. At seventy-one years old Bridges was still a fit, strong, bear of a man. He shuffled out onto the rickety balcony to stand in the brisk morning air.

From his treehouse Bridges gazed out across a sweeping landscape of red earth and thorny acacia trees. The sun rising behind the three thousand foot high face of Mount Kasigau disolved the chill of another cloudless, silent star-bright night.

When Bridges first made his home in southern Kenya in 1971 the treehouse protected him and his wife Judith from army ants, huge tusked elephants, black rhinos and ferocious maneless lions but decades of poaching had decimated the local wildlife.

Decades later Bridges was facing a new threat, this time from human predators.

Continue reading Hearts and Mines

A Year of War in South Sudan

Medium
Malakal, South Sudan

Boys peer through the window of an aid agency tent on the United Nations base outside Malakal (Tristan McConnell)
Boys peer through the window of an aid agency tent on the United Nations base outside Malakal (Tristan McConnell)

South Sudan’s war began a year ago in the capital city of Juba. It spread quickly and on Christmas Eve fighting broke out in Malakal, a city of 140,000 people at the other end of the country close to its northern border. As the army split along ethnic lines and fought for control Malakal’s residents cowered or fled.

David Koud, a thirty-six year old civil servant, had gone out early that morning. When the shooting and shelling began he raced home but found that his wife and two young sons had already been swallowed up in the exodus. As government and rebel fighters wrestled over the town Koud stayed to protect his property and wait for the return of his wife Marageret and two boys, Kopi, aged four, and Teki, aged six.

Continue reading A Year of War in South Sudan

Inside the fight for Somalia’s future

GlobalPost
Qoryooley, Somalia

Somali National Army troops are trained by European Union soldiers in Jazeera, Mogadishu (Tristan McConnell/GlobalPost)
Somali National Army troops are trained by European Union soldiers in Jazeera, Mogadishu (Tristan McConnell/GlobalPost)

In the end, it wasn’t clan militias or Islamic militants but a government soldier who killed Dr. Osman.

Over his 54 years, the pharmacist had earned a reputation for fair dealing in business, kindness among friends, and piety in the mosque. A family man, he had survived Somalia’s clan wars and then kept his head down when the Islamic militants known as Al Shabaab overran his hometown in southern Somalia five years ago. A follower of a softer, mystical branch of Islam, he obeyed the ultraconservative occupiers’ harsh new rules — don’t smoke, don’t chew khat, pay the Islamic tax, go to the mosque five times a day without fail — and carried on.

Continue reading Inside the fight for Somalia’s future

Mogadishu – Take Off

Monocle
Mogadishu, Somalia

Somalis boarding a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul (Pete Muller/Monocle)
Somalis boarding a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul (Pete Muller/Monocle)

At Aden Abdulle International Airport the chaos starts at 06.30. The outermost steel security boom is raised and the stream of passengers makes its way through five separate security checkpoints and flows on past the blast walls and barbed wire into the concrete terminal. Midway through the morning rush, airport worker Abdul Kani takes stock of the familiar scene. The dim, low-ceilinged room is engulfed in a sea of passengers. They form in human eddies around the seven check-in counters, jostling, shouting and sweating, teeth gritted as they wave their tickets in the air.

Continue reading Mogadishu – Take Off

The Next Darfur?

The New Republic
South Kordorfan, Sudan

Mother and child rest in a cave outside Tess, South Kordofan, in Sudan (AFP/Getty)
Mother and child rest in a cave outside Tess, South Kordofan, in Sudan (AFP/Getty)

The squat, tin-roofed buildings of the Mother of Mercy Hospital lie surrounded by rocky hills in a natural amphitheater in Sudan’s rebel-held Nuba Mountains. The hospital was made for 80 patients, but last month there were four times that number. Beds lined the corridors and the outside verandas. Injured civilians and wounded soldiers lay alongside the sick, diseased, and malnourished. Continue reading The Next Darfur?

How Timbuktu Saved Its Books

Harper’s
Bamako, Mali

Abdel Kader Haidara, Mamma Haidara Manuscripts Library, Timbuktu (Photograph by Tugela Ridley)
Abdel Kader Haidara, Mamma Haidara Manuscripts Library, Timbuktu (Photograph by Tugela Ridley)

I first met Abdel Kader Haidara in happier times. It was five years ago, and I had come to see his family collection of ancient manuscripts, which were stored in a grand house midway down one of Timbuktu’s sand-blown roads. Continue reading How Timbuktu Saved Its Books

Chaos in Congo: Part-I

GlobalPost
Rutshuru, DR Congo

M23 rebels in Rumangabo, eastern DR Congo (Jan-Joseph Stok)
M23 rebels in Rumangabo, eastern DR Congo (Jan-Joseph Stok)

Part-I: The horrors of eastern Congo

The figure in military fatigues and rubber boots stood on the rutted road, framed between green walls of tangled equatorial forest. He leveled his assault rifle at a small huddle of people kneeling in the mud next to their truck.

Around them were their scattered, meager belongings: burlap sacks of grain, cooking pots and small suitcases of clothes.

Continue reading Chaos in Congo: Part-I

Chaos in Congo: Part-II

GlobalPost
Rumangabo, DR Congo

A ranger in Virunga National Park, eastern DR Congo (Jan-Joseph Stok)
A ranger in Virunga National Park, eastern DR Congo (Jan-Joseph Stok)

Part-II: Africa’s oldest park is under attack

“We can’t move it, unfortunately. If we could, we would,” said Emmanuel De Merode, the director of Virunga National Park for the Congolese Wildlife Authority.

He is responsible for protecting a 3,000-square mile expanse of eastern Congo that is Africa’s oldest and most diverse nature reserve, home to at least a quarter of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.

It is also home to the M23 rebels and a breeding ground for insecurity.

Continue reading Chaos in Congo: Part-II