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Zain Verjee: I can't get image of Westgate bodies out of my mind

By Zain Verjee, CNN
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Tue October 1, 2013
  • Zain Verjee describes how Kenya's national conversation has changed to security
  • Verjee, a Nairobi native, says the coming together of all Kenyans has been powerful
  • "Kenyans like us, are thinking of great escapes in ways we never did before," Verjee writes

Editor's note: Zain Verjee, the anchor of "CNN Newsroom," grew up in Nairobi, where her family still lives. Follow her on Twitter @zainverjeecnn

(CNN) -- I can't get the image of the bodies lying near the freezer at Westgate out of my mind, and recognizing two of the victims, their bodies splayed, their blood splashed against the stark white floor.

There is a picture of an empty blue twin stroller, abandoned on the rooftop that I've walked on countless times. There are pictures we did not air on CNN because they were simply too gruesome. It felt more shocking because this was a mall as familiar to me as the back of my hand.

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Zain Verjee
Zain Verjee

"Westgate was like home to us," said my father to me over dinner in the kitchen this evening. And he was right - the mall was practically our second home -- it's where we met our friends, did the household groceries, and banking.

I'd often call home from London to find my parents at the new tapas joint sipping sangria, before that at Urban Burgers, Planet Yogurt or Artcaffe. Looking around now at our kitchen, the tea, coffee, white asparagus, beads, my favorite ice-cream (toff n'choc with nuts) wine glasses, mobile phones, are all from Westgate.

"Where shall we go shopping now," asked mum? "Nakumatt Ukay?" she said referring to a red brick shopping center 100 meters away from Westgate.

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A woman shouts during a special prayer at the Legio Maria African Mission church in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday, September 29, for the victims of the Westgate Shopping Mall shooting. A woman shouts during a special prayer at the Legio Maria African Mission church in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday, September 29, for the victims of the Westgate Shopping Mall shooting.
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Photos: Kenya mourns mall shooting victims Photos: Kenya mourns mall shooting victims

"But it's in the basement," said dad, "there's no emergency exit. Let's not go there."

Kenyans like us, are thinking of great escapes in ways we never did before. Wherever we are, what's the quickest route out? We are on edge on the streets, in our cars, and nervous in malls.

I was at a clothes shop at the Sarit Center mall looking for a new shirt to buy before presenting the "Westgate Attack Special," programme and something clattered to the floor. We all jumped in fear.

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Friends and family are thinking twice about whether to go for dinner, lunch, run basic errands, and determine what could be safe and what is not.

The national conversation has changed to security. Each passing day brings greater revelations about the terrorist plot and the government's response. Every Kenyan I have spoken to is angry, about intelligence failures, and operational failures. Kenyans are acutely aware gunmen from Westgate escaped and many say our government has not provided us with sufficient answers: How? Where? When? Why?

Yet the coming together of all Kenyans has been powerful. The diverse community has pulled together -- all races, all tribes that are often source of tension in Nairobi.

Our politicians, bitter rivals, have supported the president. In the short term Kenyans expect to take an economic blow with fewer tourists coming here, less investment, less confidence amid the threat of further attacks. For the long term, many point to 9/11 in New York or 7/7 in London and note how life went on, and those cities bounced back.

Kenya is the economic powerhouse of east Africa, that won't change. Kenyans are resilient, that won't change. Kenya leads the region in creativity, media, free press, biotechnology, arts, music, literature, none of that will change. Kenya attracts investment opportunities around the world, that won't change.

Life will go back to normal: The matatu mini vans will break traffic rules, the traffic will be horrendous, the horses will race at N'gong on Sunday, Mama Mbogas will sell their fresh vegetables, someone will order a cold Tusker beer, and the hot smell of the Kenyan earth after it rains will rise, and so will the nation.

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