The New York Times | Thievery Comes After Carnage at Kenya Mall – Army Accused of Looting

Posted October 4, 2013 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Terror Attacks In Kenya ~ 2,939 views



NAIROBI, Kenya — Mannequins were stripped clean, jewelry cases smashed, racks of expensive suits carted off, dozens of cash registers cracked open and at least one member of the Kenyan security services arrested, caught with a bloody wallet.

The looting of the Westgate mall, the scene of a siege in which scores of people were killed last month, appeared to have the scope and organization of a large-scale military operation, and many Kenyans are asking if that is what it was.

From the first hours after Islamist militants burst into the mall on Sept. 21, killing men, women and children, until a week later when shopkeepers were let back in to sweep up the broken glass, very few people were allowed inside the mall except the Kenyan security forces, mainly the army.

More and more Kenyans believe that those soldiers methodically cleaned out the mall, and that the barrages of gunfire ringing out for days were being directed not at the last of the militants but at safes and padlocks to blast them open. Some business leaders even question whether the Kenyan Army deliberately prolonged the crisis by saying that shooters were still in the building when they were actually dead, to give themselves extra time to steal.

Witnesses said that the most they saw militants loot was a couple of cans of soda, and shopkeepers cited no instances of panicked shoppers helping themselves to merchandise as they ran for their lives, leading to the widespread conclusion that the security forces must have been involved.

Kenyans are accustomed to corruption — their country is consistently rated as one of the most corrupt in the world — but the evidence of looting amid a national tragedy has been too much for many to take.

“It’s disgraceful,” said Maina Kiai, one of Kenya’s best-known human rights defenders. “It’s part of a nasty culture where power means everything, where you take what you can, you do whatever you want, and there’s no accountability.”

The Kenyan military said Thursday that it was “committed to get to the bottom of this” and appealed to the public for any information about soldiers who might have looted.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced an official inquiry into the security services’ response, which has been roundly criticized as slow and bungled. But official inquiries often do not amount to much, many Kenyans say. The other night on a Kenyan news broadcast, a camera panned across a shelf of previous inquiries — thick, bound tomes that went nowhere.

In a question put to viewers, 77 percent said they believed the Kenyan Army was responsible for the plundering of Westgate.

“Four-day siege or four-day shopping spree?” said one Western official working in Kenya.

Many questions are still swirling. The Shabab, a Somali Islamist group, has claimed responsibility for killing more than 60 people at the mall, but the number of militants who stormed in — and who they were — remain unknown.

On Thursday morning, at the Westgate entrance, vans usually used for taking tourists on safari disgorged a platoon of Western investigators wearing zip-off nylon pants and handguns on their hips. The mall reeked of rotten meat. Kenyan soldiers in hazardous-material suits and gas masks leaned over piles of debris, collecting evidence. There were still pools of blood on the floor, bits of flesh sticking to the tiles. Several more bodies were unearthed Thursday from a pile of rubble.

The mall’s electricity remained shut off, and inside Sir Henry’s, a men’s store on the ground floor, clerks took inventory by lantern light. Fazal Virani, one of Sir Henry’s owners, shook his head in disbelief. He pointed out that the cheaper suits in the front of the store had not been stolen, while dozens of his most expensive suits, hanging in the back and costing almost $2,000 each, were gone.

“These guys had time, man, these guys had time,” he said.

Mr. Virani then trudged upstairs to commiserate with other shopkeepers. “You get hit, too?” he asked a group of men standing ankle deep in crushed glass. “Dumb question,” replied Michael Waweru, the owner of a small boutique. “Everyone got hit.”

Laptops, smartphones, Swiss watches, cameras, underwear, perfume and stereo speakers were all carried out of the mall, which was supposed to be tightly guarded by the military, owners said. At the checkout booths in the Nakumatt supermarket, thieves left behind hundreds of coins on conveyor belts covered in ash. Wallets were snatched from the bodies of victims, shopkeepers said, complicating the process of identification.

In one women’s boutique, blouses, jewelry and purses were snatched, leaving naked plastic mannequins. Even the little wooden carts that sold chocolates on Westgate’s ground floor had been broken into.

“Who did this?” said Atul Shah, Nakumatt’s managing director. “The people inside. Who was inside? The defense forces.”

A cleanup crew at one restaurant said that when the soldiers allowed them back in on Monday, the crew found hundreds of bottles of gin, brandy, rum, vodka and beer sitting on the bar. It looked like the scene of a fraternity party, one Western official said.

“I don’t know if they are deprived of these things or they felt they deserved them,” said Zahir Manji, who owns four shops in Westgate.

Inside the mall this week, the evidence of widespread theft was all around. Parking machines and cash registers were pried open and emptied. A huge, mounted flat-screen television had been lifted off the wall. Doors were wrenched open, and in several stores that showed no obvious signs of having been caught up in the fighting, display cases were ransacked.

Witness accounts have not suggested that the attackers broke into safes or stole anything of value. The mall’s surveillance cameras may have captured some of the looting, but Kenyan intelligence agents have taken the footage.

“A committee of inquiry will be formed,” Mr. Shah said, sighing, “and nothing will happen.”

Of Kenya’s security services, the military had been considered the most professional, and the police force the most corrupt. But in the aftermath of the mall attack, it is the police officers who are being hailed as heroes because dozens of lightly armed off-duty officers were among the first responders at the mall, and they saved hundreds of lives.

Within hours, the Kenyan military ordered the police out. Then the army took over. Scores of soldiers poured into the mall while several assailants holed up in the Nakumatt store. The standoff ended three days later after soldiers fired an antitank missile into the store, leaving it in flames and opening an enormous crater in the flagship of one of Kenya’s most important companies.

Four days after that, the first shopkeepers were allowed back in to survey the wreckage. Millions of dollars of property had been destroyed, and businesses said that at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise were missing.

On Thursday, the talk among a group of forlorn shopkeepers was of “terrorism insurance.” Nobody there had it. But Mr. Manji hoped that would not matter.

“This was not terrorism; this was looting,” he said. “It’s sad that the people who were supposed to protect us have robbed us.”

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Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.


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