"And if you SPEND YOURSELVES on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday."

"The Lord will continually guide you. He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail."- Isaiah 58:10-11

Monday, October 21, 2013

Westgate Tragedy

Saturday, September 21. 

I reached for my ringing phone noting Katie’s name as I pressed the answer button.  Before I could say a word, her panicked voice broke through, “Mom, I just got a call from Em!  G and his family are in Westgate mall.  There are terrorists there who have attacked the mall and I can’t reach him.”  Sitting at Rift Valley Academy (RVA) next to Rick and a good friend, this was not in the realm of anything we anticipated for our rare quiet Saturday afternoon. 

Minutes later my phone rang again and Katie, slightly relieved, related that G and his dad, Chris, were in hiding but they didn’t know if his mom, Jamie, and their 4 younger children were alive.  God have mercy on our friends.  

What do we do in a time like this?  PRAY!

So we prayed… We prayed a prayer that for us began with three of us sitting on the RVA bleachers and continued for more than 5 hours.  Spreading not only to all of the RVA campus, this prayer had already begun reaching around the world as people from every political, racial and economic background joined together seeking help from God Almighty.

Below is an account from our friends who survived this attack.  Chris and Jamie Suel are missionaries to college students in Nairobi.  They have 5 children -  bookend boys and three girls in-between.  This story is being shared with their permission.  I have added some of our experiences during the day within the same time frame.

On Saturday, September 21, 2013, we went shopping to buy or son G, a suit for school.  We decided to go to Westgate Mall as it has several clothing stores.  We don’t usually choose Westgate because it’s not very close to our house, but we did that day. 

We arrived at Westgate at 12:26 (according to our parking ticket) and were so hungry we decided to grab something to eat first.  Usually we would go to Java House (located right inside the mall on the roof parking level) or Art Cafe (lower, street level/ open balcony) but on Saturday we decided on Urban Gourmet, a newer burger place (located at mall entrance, street level) that we had never tried.

Chris and G decided to step into the suit store, on the second level, to get some pricing on our way to the bottom floor where the restaurant is located. We know how long restaurants can take here, so Jamie took the 4 little kids down to get seating.  As they were about to round the corner to the main mall entrance/exit (where the restaurant is located) we heard two loud bangs followed by lots of gunfire.  Jamie grabbed Z’s hand and they began to run.  Jamie’s first thought was to run into a store and seek shelter but the kids were ahead of her following the crowd so they ran with the crowd.  Z tripped and fell flat.  Jamie picked him up and they began to run again.  They made their way to the opposite corner of the mall and out a service entrance into a storage room for the supermarket, Nakumatt.  All of the little kids were with her.  Many people were gathered in the area kind of wondering where to go and then we heard more gunfire, closer.  Everyone then ran deeper into the loading area.  A Kenyan man picked Z up and ran with him into the area.  Jamie and the kids went behind several pallets of flour and hunkered down.  They put bundles of toilet paper around them to hide themselves more and began praying for protection.  I remember thinking on the way in that the flour would be good/ protective from bullets.  There was an older Indian woman who helped hide us and was very instructive and comforting in a peaceful way.  She was a gift from God.  There were 2 boys next to us without their parents.  We put bundles of toilet paper on the side where they could have been seen and I told them to keep their heads down and keep quiet and pray.

As Chris and G were looking in the suit store, they heard the two loud booms (grenades) followed by the gunshots.  Chris immediately recognized the sounds as guns.  He also was able to hear that it was coming from the main entrance where he knew his wife and 4 younger children were supposed to be getting a table for lunch at the restaurant.

Chris and G immediately left the store and started down the escalator to the first floor to try to find the rest of his family but had to turn back due to bullets hitting the escalator and ricocheting everywhere.

Chris and G turned and ran back towards the suit store, telling people who were flat on their faces in fear to get up and get inside stores.  The suit store, had now shut its doors and was locked.  They begged to be let back in and were allowed to hide inside.

For about 5 terrifying minutes Chris was unable to reach Jamie by phone and did not know if his family had survived the initial attack.  The gunshots continued non-stop for more that 10 minutes. 

Finally Chris was able to reach Jamie and learned she and the others had found a place to hide.  He then began to tweet and call people to let them know what was happening and to get people to start praying for everyone’s safety and not to come near the mall.

For the next 5 hours grenades and gunshots could be heard from time to time.  We also were getting phone calls telling us that it was a terrorist attack and terrorist were pretending to be police to lure people from their hiding spots.

After a while, some men identifying themselves as police started yelling that it was ok, it was clear, come out, it is ok.  Jamie didn’t trust it at all.  She called Chris and while many people left, Chris told Jamie that it was not safe and she should not leave.  After hanging up she heard a barrage of gunfire coming from the area where the people just were. She prayed God would put a protective bubble around her and her kids so they would not be seen or heard by people who wanted to harm them.  She is not sure what happened to those who left at that time.

Jamie and the little kids stayed hidden for hours.  The kids were scared, but they were AMAZING.  We are so proud and thankful.  We kept getting texts saying people were praying. 

It was hours.  Leg cramps. Exhaustion. Kids needed to use the restroom. Shots.  Grenade sounding things. Machine guns. Helicopters. 

Later, another group of rescuers came near Jamie and the kids.  Jamie didn’t see them, but they seemed calmer than others who she had heard previously. They left.  It just sounded different.  She called Chris and he told her if she had an opportunity she and the others should go.  He advised her to cautiously check and leave if they could as some evacuations were going on.  She told the kids to stay put and quiet.  She snuck out and peeked her head around to see the outside.  No bodies, clear path, trucks lined up one after another near a courtyard exit.  She went back and told the now six kids they were going to go.  They walked to the exit, prayed, Jamie gave instructions to keep their heads down, stay close together, stay behind each other, and remain close to the vehicles.  They ran behind the first truck, looked out, up, and around- clear, next truck, same thing, until they reached the final, smaller truck.  At this point, she saw people at the delivery entrance and waved frantically to get their attention.  Eventually, some men saw them and came and circled around them and they made our way out the gate, up the street, to safety.  There was a man there who knew the two boys and said their mother was still alive and that everyone was meeting at a local coffee shop and they were to go there to wait for her.  The boys went with him.

Chris had told Jamie to go to a friend’s house if they were able to get out. Jamie headed to where a friend were waiting at the top of the street .  Seeing him was an instant release of emotion.  “He gathered up my kids and hugged them.  Then he hugged me and I cried.  Seeing the wife, I cried again as she hugged us and they led us to her home.  Our LC met us at the house and it was an emotional time of exchanging information and relief.  The kids went to the bathroom, got cookies and water, and then they took us further away to another home where some of our member care group live. 

This was about 3:30

(G, still in hiding, passed the news along to us that his mom and sibs were safe.  What an unbelievable sense of relief.  We even saw a picture of Jamie and six children on the news coming out of the building.  Later we learned who the two boys were that God brought to her.  We were extremely relieved that they were out. 

However, it was at this point that the news began reporting that the terrorists were systematically going from store to store clearing out people.  They were allowing Muslims dressed in hijab to go free and were shooting all other people.  A fresh wave of panic overtook us. We were desperately worried knowing that it would only be a matter of time before G and his dad were found in hiding.  We all gathered in the home of a friend and waited and prayed together.)

Chris and G were still stuck on the second floor in the suit store. There was almost no movement outside the suit store but the crashes, sirens, gunshots and screams could be heard off and on the entire time.  The only movement Chris saw was when two of the terrorists casually walk by the glass window of the store peering in.  It was a miracle, but they did not see Chris or the others hiding inside and they continued on past not to be seen again.

Chris and G were in the store with 5 other people including the owners.  The owners managed to contact a mall security person that directed the police to their location.  After five hours of hiding in the store, they were evacuated and escorted out of the mall to the roof.  During the evacuation, the gunfire escalated again and they ran with their heads down until they were clear of the danger.  25 minutes later, Chris and G were reunited with the rest of the family at a friend’s house. 

(Around 5:20pm, Katie got a call from G.  “My dad and I are out!”  She had gone outside the house to receive the call and ran into the room full of people yelling this miraculous news.  The room erupted with cheers and tears of joy!  Thank you God for considering our friends and for rescuing them!  We are so grateful!)

Our kids amazed us.  G was completely concerned for his mom and younger siblings. J was so tender and loving.  A took care of Z.  E was so uncomfortable but so cooperative.  Jamie felt sick.  Shots sounded so close sometimes. 

Afterward the US embassy called to check on us.  FB prayer network was amazing!  So many were praying and thankful that God answered their prayers! 

He led us, He kept us together, and He protected us.  We were in the Shelter of the Most High.

We went home and watched movies and Duck Dynasty.  Some of us ate others still didn’t want to.  G made cookies.  We just were together.  We occasionally stopped the movie to talk and be thankful for God’s protection and to pray for those who were still trapped.

At one point during our hiding we quietly recounted how God had protected us:
·      We did NOT round the corner to the front entrance where the gunmen came in.
·      We stayed together.
·      My iPhone allowed us to communicate with Chris (regular phones weren’t working).
·      We were behind a beautiful barricade.  I thought to myself, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run into it and they are saved.”  That day God’s name was “Unga and Toilet paper”.

Later on I added to the list:
·      Jesus is our Prince of Peace.  We had been protected by our PRINCE OF PEACE
·      We had been protected from flying bullets/ being trampled
·      A man picked up Z and carried him
·      The Indian woman who was with us behind the flour in the first bit of hiding, she was a comforting presence.
·      We were not seen.
·      We got out!  All of us!
·      Gavin chose not to go to the bathroom when we walked into the mall (he would have been separated from Chris).
·      We arrived at the mall at the exact moment where we were not at the top entrance or seated at the restaurant.  Both of these areas were the entry points for the terrorists.  Seconds counted.
·      The younger kids and I didn’t see the terrorist’s faces or any bodies.
·      It could have been SO MUCH WORSE.

Verses and thoughts that have helped:

Proverbs 18:10 The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.

Right after:
Psalm 46:1
God is our Refuge and Strength, a very present help in trouble.

Admittedly, it has not been easy to process this.  Many people don’t have the same story and several of our friends have lost loved ones. Things continued to drag out over the better part of a week and the images we saw were disturbing, especially as a few of them included people we are connected to.  Our thoughts have been distracted and it has weighed heavily on our hearts. We are so grateful but also affected emotionally.  We are clinging to God’s promises in scripture and are working to “renew our minds” with His truth. We appreciate your prayers for our friends, for the many people who have been impacted by this, and for our family as well.    

The Suel Family at a pirate party.

Candlelight prayer vigils were held around Kenya

Thousands lined up for hours to donate blood