I woke up this morning to an email asking if I was still alive. Tangled in the sheets and still half asleep, I squinted in the blinding glow of my Blackberry screen, trying to make sense of what was going on. Turns out, while I was peacefully sleeping off my long weekend, someone lobbed a grenade into a nightclub downtown. At least a dozen confirmed injured. The police are blaming al-Shabaab, and the anti-terrorism squad has sealed off the bar. It’s begun.
Since Kenyan troops went to war with al-Shabaab last week, there have been escalating threats of terrorism — threats that the international community are taking seriously. The Canadian government emails me once a week to warn me to stay away from anywhere crowded or popular with foreigners. No bars, malls, sporting events, or anything fun at all. And don’t even think about going anywhere near the border with Somalia. The Americans have also issued a travel advisory for Kenya, warning of terrorist threats… although they’re denying involvement beyond that.
So it shouldn’t be surprising, but somehow it’s still a shock. We knew something like this was coming, and we’ve been speculating for days on what it would be. Al-Shabaab promised the destruction of Nairobi’s skyscrapers and the decimation of the country’s tourism industry, so maybe I expected them to start with shock and awe. Images abound: explosions in hotel lobbies, suicide bombers on buses, car bombs in the underground parking of my office building (a prime target since it’s also home to foreign embassies and the stock exchange… great). Last night’s attack may not have been on that scale, but it makes those visions seem more likely. Al-Shabaab is clearly walking their talk, and this could just be the beginning.
It’s surreal to live with a real threat of terrorism — from my balcony I can see the skyscrapers of downtown just a few blocks away, and I keep expecting them to burst into flames. I remember in the days after 9/11, when the planes finally took to the skies again, I wondered if every jet I saw was headed for Parliament. This is a similar feeling, but doubled in intensity. This is an actual threat, one that has been carried out, first in Uganda and now in Kenya. I’ve spent long enough living in different parts of Africa that being a visible minority no longer throws me, but it’s strange to know that al-Shabaab is thinking about people like me when they plot their next move.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up somewhere like Afghanistan, where this uncertainty is just a fact of life. (All life is uncertain, but a terrorist attack a few blocks from home throws it into harsh relief.) I guess the only attitude to take in this situation is fatalism — if it’s going to happen, so be it. I can’t hide inside my apartment until all the baddies of the world are captured (or buried at sea). And anyway, I’m more likely to get robbed or die in a car accident than get-gotten by terrorists, if Dan Gardner has taught me anything.
But it’s all an especially harsh crash back to reality, after spending the weekend on the south coast drinking rum punch and making friends with starfish. What a country.
UPDATE: a second grenade attack in less than 24 hours, this time at a bus stop. It’s getting real.