Trapped missionaries recount mall shooting rampage in Nairobicomment (0)
October 3, 2013
International Mission Board (IMB) missionaries Chris and Jamie Suel, along with their five children, had only been in the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, for a few minutes when terrorists burst in firing automatic weapons and throwing hand grenades.
The Suels had split up to shop on that day, Sept. 21. It was only after five harrowing hours that they were reunited.
For three hours Jamie Suel and the four youngest children hid behind stacks of packaged flour in a storage area.
“I remember thinking on the way in that the flour would be good, protective from bullets,” she said. They heard the sounds of hand grenades, machine guns and helicopters as they hid.
As the attack on the mall commenced, Chris Suel and the older son tried to find the rest of their family. But they had to turn back as bullets struck the escalator they were on, ricocheting everywhere. They hid in a store that shut and locked its doors.
“The gunshots kept going nonstop for 10 minutes,” Chris Suel said. When they stopped he was able to reach Jamie by phone and learn she and the four children with her were OK.
“For the next five hours grenades and gunshots could be heard,” he said. “We were getting phone calls telling us that it was a terrorist attack, and terrorists were pretending to be police to lure people from their hiding spots.”
Using her cellphone, Jamie managed to maintain contact with her husband and other members of the Kenya Baptist Mission.
“After a while, some men identifying themselves as police started yelling that it was OK, it was clear, come out, it was OK,” Jamie Suel said. “I didn’t trust it at all. I called Chris, and while everyone else left he told me that it was not clear and I should not leave. After hanging up I heard a barrage of gunfire. I thought they had been massacred. I prayed God would put a protective bubble around us so we would not be seen or heard.”
Eventually when all seemed clear, she and the four children made their way to safety. Two hours later, Chris and the older son were able to flee and join them at the nearby home of another IMB couple, the Yateses.
“We are certain that among the greatest moments of joy of our lives is when Jack and I spotted Jamie and the younger kids walking toward us, and then as we received the gift of giving them hugs,” said Bert Yates, who serves in Nairobi with her husband, Jack.
“When Chris and their older son escaped, they were sent to the other end of our street and a coworker collected them.”
The Yateses live only a block from the mall. For four days, the tragic events of the mall’s takeover and hostage crisis unfolded around them.
By the time it was over, hundreds of people were traumatized, more than 175 wounded and anywhere from 70 to 200 dead. Kenyan authorities continue the grim task of recovering victims buried beneath the rubble of the internally collapsed building. A combination of multiple explosions and intentionally set fires caused sections of the mall to give way.
Militants of the Somali-based al-Shabaab organization seized the mall in retaliation for what they called Kenya’s interference in internal Somali affairs. They used automatic weapons and hand grenades to seize hostages and take control of the modern upscale mall.
Bert Yates and her husband heard the gunfire and explosions and watched as helicopters hovered over their house for 72 hours before the crisis was over.
“I would often stop, especially after times of sporadic blasts and firing, and think how calm and normal things were in our house and garden,” Bert Yates said. “People were suffering only a short distance away in ways that I could not even imagine. To be so close, but so separated, was a surreal experience, eerie. But really, there is no good defining word.”
Terrorists managed to hold off Kenyan security forces for four days before Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta was finally able to announce the end of the ordeal.
Debbie McFerron, an IMB missionary who lives a two-minute walk from the mall, sent out continuous reports and prayer requests as events unfolded over the four days. Using Facebook and a personal blog she and her husband maintain, she said, “Hearing barrages of gunfire, the blasts of grenades and the roar of low-flying police and army helicopters were all constant prayer reminders.”
Now in the aftermath of the event, McFerron said, “Pray that even as people’s thoughts ran to God during the crisis, they would continue to run to God as daily life resumes.”
Not far from Westgate mall is Rosslyn Academy, a Christian school that many children of missionaries attend. Students there initiated outdoor prayer services Sept. 25 in response to three days of national mourning declared by President Kenyatta the day before.
“It has been extremely difficult for the Rosslyn community and for Kenya,” a school spokesman said. “While we are grateful that none of our staff or students lost their lives, a few students were seriously injured and at least one lost a beloved parent. The support of the teachers and the community has been amazing, but the days ahead will be hard.”
Tim Tidenberg, IMB strategy leader for East Africa, said, “Living very near what is left of the Westgate Mall, the last few days have been ones of shock. As we watched the terrorist situation unfold, we continued to go to the promise of a faithful God and to His presence with us.”
“Today (Sept. 26), the missions community met together for a time of prayer — a time to encourage and to see each other face to face,” he said. “As we met, the subject of His faithfulness again came to the forefront. In days such as these, we must keep our eyes on Him.”
While reflecting on the trauma she and her family went through, Jamie Suel said, “These things happen. It’s sometimes the cost of doing [missions] business. It is the reason we are here. Only Christ can penetrate this evil. He called us, we obey and stay until He releases us. Sometimes living in the center of God’s will is dangerous. Dangerous, but God is good. I’m praying that God will use this to bring glory to Himself, which He always does.”
Tim Cearley, an Alabamian serving as a senior IMB strategy leader in Africa, said, “We are so thankful for God’s protection over our personnel during the recent trouble in Kenya. Of course our personnel were greatly affected as they waited, prayed and heard gunfire, explosions and screams. As well, our hearts go out to all the people of Kenya. So many people in Nairobi are deeply grieving the loss of the sense of a peaceful and safe place to live.
“Now we ask that people pray for peace and for healing,” Cearley added. “Pray, too, that believers will have opportunities to share the hope they have within them and the true source of their peace.”