THE BLOG

Unbowed By Terror

27/09/2013 11:54 BST | Updated 26/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Saturday 21 September was an ordinary day for my family and me. Perhaps not so ordinary: it was my wife's birthday, and my children woke up full of excitement and loving birthday wishes for their mum.

Later in the day, I had planned to take my son Bernard to Westgate shopping mall. But within the space of a few hours, our day unfurled into one of the most traumatic days ever for Kenyan families and my country.

I was supposed to be at the Westgate mall at two o'clock. At exactly one o'clock, I received a text from one of the CAFOD managers alerting me and other work colleagues to avoid the Westgate mall area as there had been a shooting incident.

I headed home and followed the news on TV and radio. Reports spoke of armed men engaged in a fierce gun-battle at the shopping mall, but it soon became clear that a major terrorist attack was underway. Casualties were being reported, and survivors who had escaped told their harrowing accounts of how people - men, women and children - were shot dead at close range.

I sat in silence on my sofa not wanting to believe what I was hearing.

Westgate shopping mall is one of the largest in Kenya. On my first visit a few years back, I was pleasantly surprised at how classy the place looked. I lived in Britain for fifteen years, and Westgate reminded me of the shopping malls in Milton Keynes.

It was a place where families went shopping, ate lunch and met friends. For business people, it was where you met potential clients. It was the perfect dating venue for young lovers. We all felt at home in Westgate, no matter who we were - tourists, expatriates, or people from different ethnic backgrounds or faiths. We melded together under the Westgate roof as Kenyans.

Kenya is no stranger to terror attacks: fifteen years ago in 1998, one of the worst terrorist bombings in the country took place, when the US Embassy in Nairobi was hit, resulting in the deaths of more than 230 Kenyans.

Five years later, there was another terrorist attack on a tourist hotel in the coastal city of Mombasa, which left twelve people dead.

Nairobi and Mombasa are certainly not downtown Baghdad or Damascus, and it is sporadic incidents like these that make me wonder how people come to terms with the daily destruction of lives and property.

The Kenyan Catholic Church responded by donating food and blood kit bags. The Bishops commended Kenyans for standing in solidarity with each other and appealed for continued unity.

The Church is one of the local organisations that CAFOD supports to work with communities on peace-building and reconciliation. In my local church, Shrine of Mary Help of Christians, we offered prayers for those who were affected by this tragedy. Faith groups across the country also joined hands with us and prayed for the families who had lost loved ones and for peace.

It's difficult finding someone in Nairobi who has not been touched in some way by this tragedy. I have lost a friend who is a parent in my son's school. He was the chair of the parent teachers association.

As a mark of honour to him, my son's school closed for a day, and the school community started a fundraising initiative so that the family could afford a decent funeral for him. This is just one story among other fundraising events that are being held to support the thousands of families who are in desperate need of help after losing their breadwinners.

In an appeal called 'We are one', Kenyans have donated an amazing £400,000 to help the families of the victims.

As I watched people inch forward towards the Kenyan Red Cross tents to give blood, I came to understand what binds us together - where peace and reconciliation would come from. Hospitals across the capital had sent an urgent appeal for blood. Kenyans in their thousands were responding to the appeal; snake-like queues wrapped around Uhuru Park. Someone I met told me: "When things like this happen, we are all humanitarians."

Standing there, I could see that ordinary people across the world, when faced with such horrors, are bound together because they do not want to let the bullet or the bomb destroy their belief in hope and, even more so, their humanity.

Deep in my heart I have hope. I know my country will rise above those who are bent on dividing us.