NAIROBI, Kenya – On Saturday, Sept. 21, terrorists attacked Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 72 and injuring more than 200 others. The attack began shortly after Chris Suel, a Southwestern missiology student, his wife Jamie, and their five children arrived at the mall to purchase a suit for the oldest son, Gavin. Due to the mall’s distance from their house, the family usually shops elsewhere, but because of its many clothing stores, they decided to make an exception. They will never be the same because of it.
“We have each been processing the event in our own ways, at our own times,” Chris says. “It is a surreal thing to hear your child say in the course of normal conversation, ‘I have never seen you run like you did in the terrorist attack.’ I never dreamed I would hear words like those.”
Originally part of Southwestern’s 2+2 program, Chris switched to the Master of Arts in Missiology in order to finish faster, desiring to enter the mission field before his children got too old. Although willing to go anywhere, God drew the Suels’ hearts to East Africa. Having moved to Kenya in April 2009, the Suels’ ministry comprises discipleship and training of Kenyan University students with an emphasis on reaching the unreached of East Africa. The events of Sept. 21 have afforded their ministry a new dimension.
Arriving at Westgate around 12:30 p.m., the family decided to eat lunch before shopping. While Chris and Gavin assessed prices on a second floor suit store, Jamie and the four younger children went to the bottom level to secure seating at the restaurant. Before rounding the corner on their way to the restaurant, they heard two loud bangs, followed by rapid gunfire.
“They had to turn and run as the gun fire started,” Chris recalls. “Gavin and I tried to get to them, but had to turn back as bullets were hitting the escalator we were going down on.”
Chris and Gavin sought refuge in the suit store and remained there for the next five hours.
Chris says the scariest aspect of the day was being separated from his wife and four children. In the aftermath of the initial attack, they were unable to reach each other by phone, so Chris did not know if his family had survived. After what he calls “five terrifying minutes,” he connected with Jamie by phone and learned she and the others were safe.
When the attack began, Jamie and the children ran with a crowd to the opposite corner of the mall into a supermarket storage room, hiding themselves behind pallets of flour and toilet paper.
“We were behind a beautiful barricade,” Jamie recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run into it and they are saved.’ That day, God’s name was ‘Unga (flour) and Toilet paper.’”
Continuous gunfire and the occasional grenade explosion characterized the ensuing hours. Identifying themselves as policemen, the terrorists attempted to lure people from their hiding places. Skeptical, Jamie stayed put, though others from her location went out. A barrage of gunfire followed their exit.
Around 3:30 p.m., Jamie felt a peace about trying to escape, so she, her children, and others from their location made their way to the exit. The group cautiously maneuvered through the parking lot, stopping behind each car along the way to reassess their surroundings. At the end of the parking lot, men from the delivery entrance came and encircled the group, guiding them out the gate to safety.
Chris and Gavin, meanwhile, remained trapped on the second floor.
“There was almost no movement outside the suit store,” Chris recalls. “But the crashes, sirens, gunshots and screams could be heard off and on the entire time. The only movement [I] saw was when two of the terrorists casually walked by the glass window of the store and peered in. It was a miracle, but they did not see [me] or the others hiding inside and they continued on past, not to be seen again.”
After five hours, Chris, Gavin, and five others from the store were rescued and escorted outside. During this evacuation, the gunfire escalated, forcing them to run with their heads down until they were clear of danger. They reunited with their family at a friend’s house.
“We went home, watched movies and Duck Dynasty,” Chris says. “Some of us ate; others still didn’t want to. We just were together. Occasionally, [we stopped] the movie to talk and be thankful for God’s protection and to pray for those who were still trapped.”
In the days that followed, the family listed several evidences of God’s protection.
“We did NOT round the corner to the front entrance where the gunmen came in,” Jamie says. “Five seconds earlier, we would have been right at the entrance of the mall where the attack began.”
Chris adds, “[God] led us. He kept us together. He protected us. We were in the shelter of the Most High.”
Now that several weeks have passed, Chris wants people to know that this event has not hindered their ministry.
“This only makes us want to stay more,” he says. “The only answer to this evil is Jesus.
“We didn’t come to Kenya because it was safe. We are willing to stay and do God’s will in an unsafe world because He is good and the Gospel must be boldly proclaimed. If we are telling our people here to take up their cross daily and follow Him, what kind of message are we sending if, at the first sign of danger, we leave?”