Fazal Virani, the owner of Sir Henry’s tailor shop on the mall’s ground floor, was one of the lucky ones. So was “David Kivoi”, a 25-year old father working at telecommunications shop on the first floor. David was on the escalator heading down to Nakumatt around noon to grab a soda when he heard the first grenade explosion. Dead silence for about five seconds. Then the second blast from the garage basement. That’s when the screaming began. He ran back up the descending escalator and hid behind the desk in the shop with the customers for six hours. For the first three hours the militants shot (what sounded like weapons more powerful than AK47s) for several minutes, then stopped. He is guessing that the silent moments between rounds of gunfire was when the militants were asking hostages whether they could recite verses of the Quran. If they couldn’t, he or she was shot dead. They blasted away anyone who moved an inch – even children.
David peered over the Airtel counter and caught a glimpse of two militants both female since they were wearing hijabs (traditional black Islamic dress) with shapely figures. On top of the black dresses were military-type vests with two holsters that held what he believed were (not AK47s) but M16 machine guns.
The other two attackers were men, he said, well-built and more like “action heroes” than scrawny Somalis. Though some were masked David could see enough to tell their complexions were not black, black like most East Africans and not mzungu (European/Samantha Lewthwaite) white, but in the middle white, like Arabs from Saudi Arabia or, possibly, Yemen.
Throughout the siege David was grateful there were plenty of phones and outlets to recharge them. Most of all he was happy the militants didn’t stroll near their shop. They were the last out of the building. “I think KDF forgot about us, so my boss had to call security to ask the soldiers to come get us.” At around 6:30 pm KDF finally escorted them out.
They may not have been forgotten; perhaps security forces knew that the south side of the mall had been spared almost completely. Both Fazal and David worked on the south side of the Westgate mall which (except possibly Art Caffe) was left unscathed. The north side, where the supermarket, Nakumatt, was located, sustained the most damage mainly because the militants were holed up burning mattresses and clothes trying to smoke out KDF. And it was the side of the building where KDF fired mortars for three days until the parking lot finally collapsed, potentially killing the terrorists – and hostages.
The siege – the showdown between the Kenya Defense Forces and the al-Shabaab attackers – supposedly ended Tuesday night.
The majority will say it ended the first day of the attack on Saturday the 21st.
Fazal was allowed inside early this (Sunday) morning escorted by KDF soldiers to inspect his shop.
It was dark inside, no electricity. They made their way through the mall crunching shards of glass, water everywhere. Only a shaft of light from a skylight at the top of the mall helped them see. “It was a war zone. The smell of death was everywhere,” said Fazal.”I thought I was going to vomit.” (A KDF official insisted the foul smell was meat rotting in the supermarket). He was relieved to find his inventory of business suits intact. Not even a scratch on the store windows.
A little before noon on Saturday, September 21st, Robert Mwangi parked his midnight blue Mercedes on the Westgate rooftop and, along with his 20-year old sister, Dorske, headed downstairs to shop at Nakumatt. When they heard the explosions in the basement parking lot, Robert ran outside. Dorske was already inside Nakumatt and stuck there for three hours hiding behind suitcases. Robert texted her frantically saying he’d heard from media reports and those injured in the hospital that the terrorists were informing hostages that if they could repeat verses of the Quran they could leave the building. If not they were shot dead. Robert texted her some phrases of faith he said he got off the web. Luckily the terrorists never found her and KDF soldiers eventually escorted out. Dorske is already back at school in the UK.
Two days later Robert Mwangi opened the Standard newspaper and saw his Mercedes dangling on the precipice of the caldera on the rooftop mall. I met him just as it was being towed into the parking lot of a nearby mall.
David told me Saturday evening he thought KDF did a great job keeping everyone calm, repeating “Everything’s going to be alright.”
“They [KDF] did they best they could,” said David. “But until they become more experienced [at war] I will keep praying to God.”
Categories: Conflict In Context - Field Notes