Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

When a terror attack hits too close to home

Living in the UAE, it is easy to feel shielded from attrocities – cocooned from the worst of the world

Burning cars are seen at the scene where explosions and gunshots were heard at the Dusit hotel compound, in Nairobi, Kenya January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Burning cars are seen at the scene where explosions and gunshots were heard at the Dusit hotel compound, in Nairobi, Kenya January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

My stomach sinks as the news flashes up on the TV. Another terrorist attack in Nairobi.

A succession of all-too-familiar images. Black smoke billowing out of a luxury hotel complex housing the DusitD2, just around the corner from where I stayed the last time I visited the city – gun-toting security forces cordoning off the area; cars on fire; civilians fleeing for their lives.

Details emerge in snatches: ­explosions outside the hotel, a ­suicide bomber in the lobby, ­gunmen shooting at will. An early count says at least 21 people are dead, with many more injured. Britons, ­Kenyans, Americans – just ordinary people going about their business, ­slaughtered indiscriminately.

We have become increasingly desensitised to such images – our ­24-hour news cycle serves them up all-too-often as attacks unfold across the world, sometimes in far-flung places that we know nothing about, sometimes in capital cities that we know all too well. Living in the UAE, it is easy to feel shielded from such atrocities, cocooned from the worst of the world. It is easy to start watching the news with a sense of detachment.

But this one hits a little too close to home. My mother is from Kenya and I have close friends and family living there. I visit the country regularly and know that hotel well. The tables turn very quickly when you start ­thinking: “That could have been me, or ­someone I know and love.”

FILE PHOTO: An ambulance is seen at the scene where explosions and gunshots were heard at the Dusit hotel compound, in Nairobi, Kenya January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/File Photo
An ambulance is seen at the scene where explosions and gunshots were heard at the Dusit hotel compound, in Nairobi, Kenya. Reuters

I send a flurry of WhatsApp messages. Three simple words: “Are you okay?” There’s no need to ­elaborate or explain.

I wait for my messages to go through. First a single tick, then two. And then, finally, after what feels like an age, the ticks turn blue. “Yes, fine.” “So sad.” “I was just around the corner,” come the responses. One of my friends – the one whose apartment I stayed in the last time I was in Kenya – sends me a video of her compound, of residents fleeing against a backdrop of impossibly loud gunshots. It is terrifying.

The Somali militant group Al Shabab claims responsibility, adding to the catalogue of heinous acts they have committed in Kenya, ­including a deadly assault on a university that killed about 150 people, and a chilling attack on the Westgate shopping mall that resulted in the death of 67 unsuspecting shoppers and employees. I had been in the mall a month prior to the attack, buying ­earrings from a Masai tribesman trading in handcrafted jewellery. I often wonder – was he there on that fateful day? What became of him?

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Read more of Selina's thoughts:

Take it from a nicotine addict, shisha is no joke

UAE expat view: How being home for the holidays is like travelling back in time

Our smartphones are turning us into holier than thou vigilantes

From Dubai to Abu Dhabi: some lessons learnt on a long commute

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The repercussions ripple outwards in a poisonous wave. People continue to lead their lives – stoic, because you have to be, because to be ­anything else is to let the extremists win. But people are wary, too. Tourism suffers ­immediately and the livelihoods of those that are most in need are ­decimated in one fell swoop.

I wonder when I will visit again, whether this latest incident will be enough to deter even me, someone with deep ties to the country, who views it as their adopted home. I think not, because, again, to not visit, to let acts such as these alter our patterns of behaviour, is to let the extremists win.

Updated: January 17, 2019 06:08 PM

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