NAIROBI, Kenya – Someone dropped a shopping bag just outside the Nakumatt supermarket, and a bottle of juice shattered. Cranberry, it looks like, or maybe cherry. The liquid leaks from the plastic bag and across the tile floor, puddling in fist-sized splotches of red.
Everyone nearby sees it it. Some shoppers visibly flinch, and take wide circles around the scene, which looks far too much like something else, somewhere else.
On Saturday afternoon at Nairobi’s Junction shopping center, many people were thinking about that somewhere else. They were focusing on what began one week earlier at the Westgate Mall a couple miles away, where a team of Islamist gunmen had launched a bloody four-day siege. By the time it ended, at least 67 people were dead, smears of blood tracing the path of the attack.
“I don’t want to be here,” said a young woman walking past an upscale Junction wine bar with a friend. “I only came because I had to.”
The Junction is far from empty, but it’s not crowded either, and many people say they are on guard.
“We’re all looking around, and not at ease,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Malesi.
It’s a nervous time in Nairobi. The city isn’t deeply on edge: Bars were crowded Friday night, and there are only a handful of free tables Saturday at the Java House, a popular chain of coffee houses that also had an outlet at Westgate. But it’s not normal, either.
It’s not clear how many people are missing (the Red Cross says 59, the government says none), it’s not clear how many gunmen were involved in the attack, or if any escaped.
The government has released almost no information about what happened between Saturday night, when hundreds of people managed to flee the attackers, and Tuesday night when the siege finally ended.
She and her friend mention the rumors spreading through the city, of brutally disfigured corpses found in the wreckage. Facebook and Twitter are awash in questions and conspiracy theories.
“Maybe it’s so much worse” than the government has admitted, she said. “They haven’t told us anything.”
In the first days after the attack, many Kenyans – among Africa’s most active users of Twitter – affixed the tag #WeAreOne to their tweets, capturing the sense of national unity the attack evoked. But by midweek, amid conflicting accounts from officials and an absence of information on key facts, the one began to shift. More and more, the tag was twisted into #WeAreOne–dering.
“Like many Kenyans I’m a bit frustrated. The government isn’t giving us much information.
They’re controlling the information,” said Makena Onjerika, 26, a market researcher and blogger who recently wrote a blog post asking what happened to the hostages thought to be held inside the mall.
She planned to spend the one-week anniversary of the attack doing volunteer work.
“We don’t really know what is happening in Westgate,” she said. “Who do we hold accountable for the lives that have been lost? There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Some fear the mixed messages are making a difficult, tragic situation worse.
“Can someone explain to me how are the terrorists not getting emboldened by our confusion?” Ory Okolloh, who goes by the Twitter handle (at)kenyapundit, tweeted on Saturday.
Hoping to keep track of the questions making the rounds in Kenyan communities and social media, Kenyan Twitter users created an online list of questions anyone could edit. The list swelled quickly, including fundamental questions like “How many terrorists were involved in the attack?” and more barbed ones such as “Why were the event interlocutors not briefed in order to get their narrative straight, consistent and common, so as not to make it sound like the government was confused and speaking in six tongues?”
“A lot of things weren’t making sense,” said digital strategist Simeon Oriko, who got the online list started. “It helps get an entire overview of what the nation is feeling.”
The uncertainty was clear for first responders too. The Kenyan Red Cross this week identified “increased public anxiety on account of missing persons” and “inadequate information flow” among its biggest challenges.
In a televised address Tuesday, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed authorities to keep the country informed of the progress of the mall investigation.
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku has emerged as the public face of the investigation, but has so far been unable – or unwilling – to answer many questions. He has urged Kenyans to give investigators time to work through a “delicate and complex” forensic probe, initial results of which aren’t expected until next week.
Jane Ngatia, one of the counselors working at Nairobi’s morgue, helping families cope with the sudden shock of their losses, said she and her colleagues expected more bodies to be found in the rubble.
The counselors also tried to help many people searching for loved ones.
But she doesn’t have much to tell them, because the government has said so little.
“They are frustrated – we are part of the team and are frustrated,” she said Friday. “They are still asking are there more bodies, and we don’t know. No one has the answer. They feel so helpless.”