Indian diaspora caught in Kenya mall carnage

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NAIROBI, September 25:  At half past noon last Saturday, Sangu Shah and her husband Anuj drove up the ramp of the basement parking of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi’s Westland neighbourhood.

At the rooftop parking four floors above her, Pavraj Ghataurhea, 17, and his grandmother Dalvinder Kaur stood amongst a crowd at the SuperChef Junior cooking competition hosted by Ruhila Adatia-Sood, a jockey with East FM, a radio station that played the latest Bollywood songs. Malti Vaya was there with her sister-in-law Jyoti; Manoj Jain, her colleague at the Bank of Baroda, was there with his children, Parmashu and Pooja.

Bushan Vidyarthi, a 76-year-old grandfather, sipped a coffee on the terrace of the Artcaffe; Harsha Shah was parked at the ground level, waiting for her driver to pick up her groceries from the Nakumatt, a super-market chain she owned with her husband Haku.

The car just in front of Sangu’s golden Mazda braked sharply. She looked out of the window and stared down the barrel of Kalashnikov. “I closed my eyes my eyes,” she said, “I folded my hands, I prayed.”

In minutes, gunmen allied to the Somali Al-Shabaab militia were everywhere. On the street, Harsha ducked as a bullet tore through the backseat of her car and smashed the windshield. Mr. Vidyarthi hit the ground and crawled to an exit as the man on the table next to his took a bullet to the stomach.

On the roof, the gunmen flung two grenades into the crowd at the cooking competition and opened fire. Pavraj, who once cycled 441 km to Mombasa to for charity, died on the spot, as did his grandmother, as did Malti and Jyoti, as did Parmashu, who was only eight years old, as did Ruhila, who was pregnant with her first child.

In the basement, Sangu opened her eyes; gunman had vanished. Where was Anuj? She opened the passenger door: he was sprawled face down on the concrete with a bullet through the back of his head.

The Ministry of External Affairs has confirmed that four Indian passport holders died in the carnage at the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, but community leaders of Kenya’s 70,000 strong south Asian diaspora believe at least 30 of their people died in one of Kenya’s greatest national tragedies.

Santosh Tiwari and Shahab Uz Zaman, both Indian passport holders, were en route to a meeting at Westgate but were delayed. Moved by what they saw, they have since begun compiling a list of victims. “The official figures say only four killed, but the loss to the community is much greater,” said Mr. Tiwari.

“We have conducted 12 funerals in the last three days. Another 10 will happen in the coming week,” said Kishorebhai Aasha, the priest at the Hindu Sabha crematorium, “The Muslims and Ismailis have lost a lot of people as well.”

The Westgate mall is walking distance from Parklands, the middle-class neighbourhood of the Shahs of Saurashtra. “Everyone here is from 52 villages near Jamnagar,” said Keshubai Shah, outside M.P. Shah hospital, a community facility built 80 years ago.

Apart from the Shah community, who came as traders as early as the 1800s, the Punjabis are present in large numbers. “My grandfather came over in 1897 as a stationmaster with the railways,” said Mr. Vidyarthi, who survived Saturday’s attack.

The British brought the Indians to build east Africa’s railway network, he said, “From Uganda to Mombasa, every stationmaster, rail-guard, engine driver, and coolie was an Indian.” Mr. Vidyarthi’s father, Girdhari Lal, set up The Colonial Times and wrote in favour of Kenyan independence.

In time, the diaspora settled around Parklands and built hospitals, schools and community centres.

“The Westgate Mall was a hub for the Indian community,” said Manmit Jabbal, an architect who designed parts of the Mall, “Almost 25,000 people visit the mall over weekends.” The mall is anchored by a two-storey Indian-owned Nakumatt grocery store, and has banks, shops, restaurants and a multiplex. “We end up visiting it three times a week,” Mr. Jabbal said.

Rescue operations began about two hours after the attack; the Red Cross and Kenyan military set up base in the Oshwal Community Centre, built by the Shahs. Many of the injured, from all ethnic groups, were rushed to the M.P. Shah and Aga Khan hospitals. Keshubhai’s company, Bakpharm Wholesalers, provided supplies for free.

“We have at least 158 injured, 40 are children,” said Pallavi Shah, a medical technologist who moved here from Mumbai in 1986. Over the weekend, she treated people pierced by bullets, shrapnel, granite chips, and glass shards.

Out at the checkpoints around the mall, Indian diaspora community service joined hundreds of Kenyans in providing refreshments to the troops. “We are all Kenyans now,” said Vipul Darji, a steel trader who moved here 30 year ago, as he handed out bottles of Coca Cola to weary soldiers.

Anila Dodhia didn’t enter Westgate that Saturday. She drove up to entrance but was turned away as she was carrying a gas cylinder in her car. “As I turned my car around, I heard gunfire and ducked under the seat,” she recalled, “I called my husband and said, it is only by god’s grace that we shall meet again.” Suddenly she saw a group of Bora Muslims, decked in traditional attire, running out of the mall with their hands in the air and the prayer of Allah on their lips. She slipped out of the car, mingled with the crowd and escaped.

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