In Kenya, A Fraught Return To The Site Of A Massacre

In Nairobi, four men are on trial for assisting the terrorists who stormed Westgate Mall in September in an attack that killed at least 67 people. On Tuesday, the judge and lawyers on both sides left the stuffy confines of the courtroom and took a field trip — back inside the mall itself. The prosecution said that the trip was necessary to understand how and where the attack was carried out. But the trip — and this trial — has also seemed like a search for closure, in a case that four months later still has so many unanswered questions.

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In Nairobi, four men are on trial for helping the terrorists who stormed Westgate Mall in September. More than 70 people were killed in that attack. Today, the judge and lawyers on both sides left the confines of their courtroom and took a field trip to the mall.

As NPR's Gregory Warner reports, they went looking for the truth of what happened that day. But they also went looking for closure.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Here's something I did not expect walking into Westgate Mall for the first time since the attack in late September. The columns are here, the banister, the floor's great. Remember, the massacre that took place here four months ago was only the beginning of a four day shootout inside the mall. Culminating in an explosion, still unexplained, that destroyed half the building, setting off a fire that smoldered for weeks, and then a flood.

People would describe the wreckage as a soupy mass with an unbearable stench of decay. Today, it just looks like a mall under construction. There's bits of insulation on the floor, and air ducts that look like they're about to be installed. Only the acrid smell and the bullet holes suggests, in this part of the tour anyway, that this mall is not just closed for renovation.

Today's visit was the idea of the state prosecutor, James Warui. He told me last week outside the courtroom that, in this case, blueprints and photographs weren't enough to set the scene.

JAMES WARUI: When you are conducting a case of this nature, you need the court to really appreciate the various areas you're mentioning in the evidence. That's why it is necessary for the court to go there.

WARNER: To go there, cough through the dust, and listen to witnesses like Ali Niraj, an off-duty cop who had come to the mall to ferry money from one of the stores. Niraj showed us the exact place he stood.

ALI NIRAJ: Yeah, I was shooting from this pillar and my colleague was at the other pillar, when we were exchanging fire.

WARNER: He pointed down at the ground floor where he saw the terrorists walked into the front entrance of the mall shooting. And capturing the pure strangeness of that day, he said he didn't know at first if they were the attackers or the special police come to rescue them. So while he hid behind the pillar, he held up his security guard jacket like a flag or a kind of test, like: Look at me.

NIRAJ: So if they could see my jacket, they are bad people - I know. And if they are good people, I also identify. So when they saw me they just started shooting at me.

WARNER: What made this re-enactment so strange was the four men in handcuffs standing to one side. None of those men accused in this case were the gunmen, none of them were even inside the mall. They're accused of assisting the terrorists somehow, but it hasn't yet come out in the case what role they actually played.

I asked the prosecutor, James Warui, why the accused had even come along with us on the trip.

WARUI: According to Kenyan law, they have to be here. They have to be present.

WARNER: Why?

WARUI: It's a requirement of the law they have to be present.

(LAUGHTER)

WARUI: No reason.

WARNER: Those four men present for no apparent reason might have served as a stand-in for four other men - the four gunmen who the Kenyan government insists were killed in the shootout, but whose remains have not yet been definitively found.

We come to the part of the mall that collapsed in the firefight. It's now a large crater where workers are carefully shoveling through rubble, collecting mangled steel. Forensics experts from the FBI and Scotland Yard have long since combed through this wreckage for clues. And still, the open question of what exactly happened to the men responsible for this massacre is so sensitive that no one here would talk about it, only the court translator who gave only his first name as Abdi.

ABDI: It's not true that they escaped. That's what they are saying.

WARNER: Abdi points up at part of the destroyed building to a room where the closed circuit footage from the mall shows four terrorists calmly praying and eating before one of them reaches up - this is at about 12 hours after the attack began - and turns the closed circuit camera away. That's the last image of the terrorists that is known to have been seen.

ABDI: So is that useful is that hole, what it is. That is where they were praying and they came they died there. They were burned there.

WARNER: Behind Abdi, a Kenyan security official shook his head no and shrugs. And when I asked his name, he refused to answer. There were so many questions.

Whatever happens to the four accused men in this trial, the full story of what happened that day at Westgate remains a mystery.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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