(JTA) — When Rina Attias phoned to say that she was trapped with terrorists inside Nairobi’s Westgate mall, her husband Albert replied with a short instruction: Hang up right now.
Albert Attias, the head of the Jewish community in the Kenyan capital and an Israeli military veteran, wanted to communicate with his wife by text message so she wouldn’t be overheard speaking Hebrew. Their Israeli connections were not something the couple were eager to advertise, even in normal circumstances.
“I was gravely concerned,” Albert Attias told JTA, recalling the first hours of the deadly attack and two-day siege carried out by Islamic militants at the upscale shopping plaza that began on Sept. 21. “I prayed she’d get out before dark because at night anything could happen.”
Rina Attias was trapped for six hours before escaping. But her ordeal at what was considered a safe area in Nairobi has shaken the brittle sense of security for the approximately 600 members of the Jewish community of Kenya, a country that has strived, not always successfully, to escape the violence raging just beyond its borders.
“We were already careful, but this attack reinforces in us the need to be vigilant,” Attias said.
Along with Attias, several hundred bystanders fled the mall after a dozen or so armed terrorists stormed the five-story building and holed up there with hostages. The death toll included 61 civilians, six security officers and five suspected terrorists. Nine other suspected terrorists are in custody, Kenyan authorities have said, but some are believed to have escaped through a sewage canal that security forces discovered 72 hours after the attack began.
No Jews were among the victims of the attack, according to Attias, which occurred as many community members attended the bar mitzvah celebration of an Israeli diplomat’s son.
Opened in 2007, Westgate was a “place of comfort, upscale luxury, a feeling of something foreign that doesn’t exist in too many places here,” the Kenyan journalist Jeff Omondi said.
Beyond the air-conditioned walls of Westgate lies a crime-infested metropolis of 3.1 million where vultures circle over vast slums and potholed roads in search of a meal in one of the many garbage heaps festering in the tropical sun.