NAIROBI, Kenya – The volunteers kept bringing food, boxes upon boxes of cookies and bottled water. After shoppers and workers were mowed down by al-Qaida-linked militants at a mall in Kenya's capital, a Hindu religious center 600 meters (yards) away became a place where responding soldiers, police and others could get tea, food and rest.
The scores of Kenyan military personnel, government officials and others who used the Oshwal Religious Center as an oasis didn't go hungry. Volunteers, singly and in groups, brought tea, cookies, cakes, buttered bread and, most of all, comfort to those who were emerging from the scene of the horrifying terrorist attack, where the corpses of men, women and children were sprawled on floors amid bursts of gunfire and explosions.
Some volunteers stayed up all night so there would be a constant supply of hot tea for soldiers as well as humanitarian workers, journalists and others monitoring events inside Nairobi's Westgate mall. It also served as a first aid center at times. On Monday civilian doctors treated a Kenyan soldier for a bullet wound to his hand.
"This was a place where you got served without questions," said Eric Mwangi, a police officer. "No one asked you who you were or where you came from. We were always comfortable here."
It was also a place where people, by bringing items to the center, could show unity in the face of unspeakable atrocities. More than five years ago Kenyans were divided, with members of the Kikuyu, Kalenjin and Luo tribes killing each other in the wake of a disputed election. In the past week Kenyans came together as members of the Somali Islamic extremist group al-Shabab carried out the worst terrorist attack in Kenya since 1998, when the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was bombed by al-Qaida.
"We will never forget this place. Here we all came together as Kenyans and took care of each other," said Philemon Kipkurui, a security guard at the center.
President Uhuru Kenyatta praised Kenyans who had helped survivors of the attack. Many had lined up to donate blood. Others gave plenty of groceries, clothing and other supplies — uplifting acts of charity that some Kenyans said they were not accustomed to seeing on such a grand scale.
Kenyatta said in a speech Tuesday that Kenyans had rallied together "in ways that exceeded the wildest expectations." The day after the assault began on Sept. 21, he made an appearance with Raila Odinga, the former prime minister whose disputed loss provoked the tribe-on-tribe violence after the 2007 elections.
"The response of the people throughout the country has been nothing short of wonderful," Kenyatta said.
Later in the week, the squat concrete structure that houses the Hindu temple in Nairobi's Westlands neighborhood began resuming its normal state. Breakfast was no longer being served, and the military trucks had departed the gated compound.
On Saturday soldiers and police still maintained a security perimeter near the mall. Journalists and camera crews stood by, waiting for the latest news to emerge from the shattered mall.