Covering the Westgate shooting: Smoke and sadness

Big explosions in Westgate Mall left big parts of it destroyed. (AFP)

Big explosions in Westgate Mall left big parts of it destroyed. (AFP)

Friday September 20 2013 
I'm standing in Dakar, Senegal's echoey international airport, being yelled at by a man in French. Having not spoken much French since high school, eventually I recognised a word I knew, "embarkment", meaning (I guess) the passengers are already boarding. I was shocked, I had never missed a flight before.
But upon a second glance at my flight itinerary it appeared that I have indeed misread my ticket and missed my return flight home to Nairobi. Dumbfounded at my stupidity, I took a taxi back to my hotel to check in, again. I remember thinking, "Oh well, maybe there's a reason for this."

At around 11.50am Nairobi time I realised just what that reason could have been.

I am a Twitter addict. As the East Africa bureau chief for eNCA it is my job to know everything that happens before a junior Johannesburg producer calls me and tells me they saw it on the wires. Twitter has been an amazing asset. I follow all the local reporters, the know-it-alls and news addicts in every country in my region. I often hear about breaking news hours before the wires do. And that is where I learned of the shots and explosions heard at Westgate Mall in the suburb I live in, in Nairobi.

Westgate Mall. I've talked about it so many times over the last few days that, to me, it no longer means what it used to. Before the day the attackers took it over, killing 67 people and taking possibly dozens hostage before half of it burned down, Westgate was a place me and hundreds of other Kenyans and ex-pats visited, on average perhaps once every three days. It had the best restaurants, I banked there and bought my milk and wine there. I had my favourite coffee shop and loved the Spanish breakfast at Art Caffe; I had my buddy Steve who used to help me at the Nakumatt grocery store and Kate at the Safaricom store, who helped me through countless phone and internet issues.

I have covered East Africa and lived in my apartment, about 500 metres from Westgate, for more than two years. It is my hood. On that Saturday, I was due to go to gym at 10am and then I would likely have gone to brunch with my neighbour, Meg. It's part of a comfortable weekly routine. Until I missed my flight.

My immediate thought, fed by Twitter and the recent spate of robberies, was that it was a bank robbery. I called Meg, who was at home and she said she could feel the walls rattling from the explosions and there were many helicopters overhead. I monitored my Twitter feeds. As the minutes ticked by and al-Shabab began tweeting its taunting messages, the horrific feeling that "it" had finally happened set in.

"It" is something Nairobians, especially those in the political and security industry, talk about a lot. After Kenya sent its troops into Somalia in 2011, there were a series of grenade attacks on bars, restaurants, churches and mini bus taxis. It was one person killed here, another there, big news but not the "spectacular" attacks of say Kampala in 2010 or September 11 2001. Malls dramatically improved their security including Westgate. Suddenly we were searched, cars were searched – it took a bit of getting used to. Al-Shabab vowed to attack Kenya and bring the war to Nairobi and Mombasa but nothing big ever happened.

And then the threats died down. The grenade attacks become much less frequent. And life returned to normal, with the security checks, albeit laughable at times. (I know people who carry weapons, who often used to get searched, and rarely did security spot their guns.)

We would joke the days away sitting at restaurants, out on the balconeys, saying that we were sitting ducks, and then those jokes died away too as it all seemed so unbelievable. And you cannot live in fear, right? Nairobi returned to its peaceful self. The embassies threat level assessments disappeared or no longer were "news" and people got on with life.

The plane ride from Dakar to Nairobi, or what I remember, was fraught with fear. You could tell who the Kenyans were on the flight, because they weren't smiling. I was immediately identified as a journalist by the cabin crew, who whenever they could, asked for the latest updates I was getting from my team there as we landed to refuel in Côte d'Ivoire.

Once we landed in Nairobi it still hadn't sunk in. Hostages. Bodies. More than 60 dead. More than 200 wounded. Hospitals needing blood and supplies. Morgue overwhelmed. It was surreal. My team, Soni Methu, John Arigi, Orto Sori and Raphael Ambasu had all come in over the weekend and had started the massive breaking news cycle. Dodging bullets and security guards, ambulances, fraught relatives, women who lost control of their legs as they ran out and the heroes. The countless heroes. Civilians doing all they could, Red Cross and St John's personnel and the policemen and army who had to go and brace the incoming gun fire.

It wasn't until I saw our video for the first time that it really hit me. The fear in people's faces. Ordinary people. Shoppers on a Saturday afternoon with their kids. Haunted. Horrified. Babies being carried out by strangers after their mothers had been gunned down. Women with gunshot or shrapnel wounds hurled into shopping trolleys to get away as quickly as possible. Putting rolls of toilet paper under their heads as pillows. And the countless children running around and screaming. I knew this was a big story. No one had slept, and despite me urging the other crew to go home and get some rest while we took over, they refused. They wouldn't sleep anyway, they said.

My apartment at 6am in the morning reminded me of my first morning waking up in Afghanistan when I visited for one month in September 2010. Our whole area, called Westlands, is known for its bars and restaurants and the two biggest malls in Nairobi. It was now being buzzed by three different planes at any one time. Two helicopters and one fixed wing, sometimes two.

Journalists, after the initial storming on Saturday, were moved a block away. This made good sense as the attackers were likely to be watching the local and international news, many of whom were broadcasting live coverage of where the Kenyan authorities were setting up their defensive and offensive positions. The place they had moved us to meant you couldn't see a thing except for the odd ambulance, and the blaring hum of the media house generators meant you couldn't hear much either.

My cameramen and I went on what we call a "recce" mission to find a good spot to get shots of the mall from high up. We asked my landlord and he took us to the roof of my apartment, which had a perfect vantage point. Far enough to not see any troops or get shot by any attackers ourselves, as far as we knew they didn't have sniper rifles, but close enough for major action. It was here we set up our field office. I was doing live cut-ins, while my colleague Soni was speaking to people on the ground, going to the hospitals etc.

Sunday was fraught with rumours. Awful rumours that made my skin crawl. Rumours that the hostages were being tortured. Rumours of more planned attacks. No malls and few shops and restaurants in the area were open. Texts were coming through from security companies warning people to stay away from major installations, while the crowds of Kenyans who gathered around the Westgate, transfixed by the bursts of gunfire and odd explosion that echoed from the mall, were constantly teargassed to disperse them. Al-Shabab traditionally, in their former stronghold of Mogadishu, use secondary attacks to kill even more people than their initial ones. A simple car bomb will be set off in a restaurant parking lot, killing a few people, and then once the big crowd of police and medical workers gather to help, a secondary bomb will go off in the form of a suicide vest or another vehicle bomb, killing hundreds. The crowd gathering outside the mall was a real concern for Kenyan authorities.

On Sunday we learned that South Africans had been trapped in the mall at the time of the attack. I was surprised, as I figured I knew most of the South Africans in Nairobi and my friends were all safe.  But it was not the case as one man was killed and several others had harrowing stories of dramatic escapes and rescues. The South African High Commission had been directly involved in helping them get out, liasing with local authorities, and I felt oddly comforted being a South African passport holder.

The other internationals killed included French, British, Canadian and Chinese, to name a few. But it was the Kenyans who took the majority of the bullets and grenades. The graphic pictures began to emerge of Indian women and children, gunned down in the parking lot. Employees of Nakumatt, lying in pools of their own blood next to the aisle where I get my favourite deoderant. On Sunday night I complained of a neck ache, and burst into tears when I realised I couldn't just "pop into Westgate" to get some pain medication. It wasn't so much that the pharmacy I use was likely shot to hell, it was the thought of the little pharmacist who always helps me, and gives me monthly vitamin B injections, perhaps getting caught in the crossfire. I couldn't even remember her name to try to find out if she was still alive.

On Sunday night, we all just prayed for it to be over. Kenyan authorities said it was all under control, but on Monday it proved to be a great exaggeration, if not total fabrication. 

Monday, September 23 2013
We were once again woken up (or did we really sleep?) by helicopters, gunshots and explosions. My cameraman Orto Sori and I climbed the seven flights of stairs to our live position with heavy hearts. I couldn't help but imagine how a parent or a child or a spouse of someone trapped inside on day three of a siege would feel. Every gunshot reverberated throughout leafy Westlands. Usually on a Monday Peponi road, past Westgate, is gridlocked. Street vendors try and sell motorists puppies and bunny rabbits and roses. Today it was totally blocked off. No one was really "working". Most were glued to their TV screens.

Al-Shabab had been tweeting constantly about its operation inside. They had cruelly joked that Peponi road ironically meant "paradise" road. Their language on the social networking site was obscure at times, talking about the "sanguine" attitude of the attackers. Its Twitter accounts were being shut down and re-opened so fast that it was difficult to know who was really tweeting, or if it indeed was the attackers and their usually very effective PR machine, but I recognised something in the bizarre language that reminded me of their old accounts. One tweet called the al-Shabab attackers "Westgate Warriors" and called their brutality "a mesmeric performance ... Act 1".

On Monday around 1PM Nairobi time, my cameraman and I were about to go down and eat some food, when Westgate exploded. We quickly relinked to our satellite BGAN and Orto began to roll. Former SABC journalist and a good friend of mine, Vauldi Carelse, was with us. Ironically last time she and I had been reporting together we had been in Mogadishu, Somalia. There have been moments in my career that I would have described as the worst moments, and this was definitely one of them. Seeing an establishment and knowing there are many, many innocent people you are likely to know or at least recognise inside surrounded by gunmen made me want to vomit. In fact, I know a lot of people who go there and narrowly missed the attack, were physically sick. We immediately went live, breaking into whatever stories eNCA was covering at the time. I don't remember much other than at one point, off camera, I covered my microphone and asked Vauldi to call my Dad in Zimbabwe to tell him we were all OK. The explosions and shooting were so loud that all of us jumped at every horrifying, pounding noise.

I've re-watched some of the live coverage from that day, and my best friends and family who watched it too, tell me that the look on my face isn't that of fatigue or panic or nervousness. It is of complete horror and grief. As the building exploded in front of our eyes, I could feel the terror of the hostages. I could hear in my head the sounds of how the bullets and bombs would echo through the halls. I could imagine myself, or one of my friends, crouched somewhere, trying hard not to breathe too loudly, hiding and waiting to possibly die, trying with shaking hands to send a last message to my parents and watching others die around me. To run or to hide? What an agonising choice. All I wanted to do was rip my microphone off, throw it at the Westgate Mall and scream "just stop, please, we get your point, please, please, please just stop it".

The thick black smoke that poured out of the rooftop quickly made us all hoarse. Crowds were running and screaming below us. The time ticked by and the anchors in studio just kept on us. My boss, our news editor Ben Said, and his team were down at the corner with some of the other journalists so the anchors bounced between him and me.

At one point during my live segment, Vauldi ran over to me and pulled me down whispering in my ear that someone had signalled to us from the left side of the mall that we should take cover. Well, at least that meant someone was alive inside. We dove down onto the floor, staring at each other with wide eyes, pulling Orto the cameraman down as well. The cameras and eNCA stayed on us, though. We were struggling to breathe because of the smoke, but somewhere in the back of my throat, and I know Vauldi's as well, there was a big lump of tears just waiting for a quiet minute to burst out. Not now, please not now. I kept talking. "Al-Shabab. Somali insurgent group. 10-15 attackers. Hostages. 60 plus dead. Gunmen. Storming." Please don't cry.  

We were all worried about our team on the ground as our junior cameraman Raphael had gone to try and get new footage from a different angle. What if he got too close? What if the whole building comes down? We had no idea who was behind the explosives. We had learned by this stage that the attackers might have rented a shop in the mall and had been smuggling weapons and ammo, and likely explosives, in for months. Who knew how many kilograms of explosives they could have rigged in there?

There were also  reports of hostages being used as human shields, being forced to wear the explosives. It was just horrifying. At around 4pm Kenya time, there was more explosions, more smoke and more shots. As the hours ticked by, we were told by the Kenyan government their troops had launched a rescue operation but there was no word on the success of it. The fires, we were told, was caused by the hostage takers, in a last-ditch attempt to conceal themselves by burning mattresses. I wasn't sure what or who to believe. We were live for around six hours. The longest and shortest hours of my life. Eventually after the sun set and we did our final live, we were able to think about what had actually happened. Shock. Disbelief. Total sadness.

In the days that followed, the story got more convoluted and confusing. Government and the military keep contradicting themselves. I stopped listening to them on Tuesday when they claimed the attackers were caught, but we still heard the bursts of gunfire and explosions from inside. Then the nagging voice began in my head. Did I really want to live here, in Kenya? That could have been me. Why would I want to live in fear? What would change? Will we ever feel safe again?

Then I met Abdul Haji. A 38-year-old Kenyan, the son of Kenya's former defence and internal security minister. He became an overnight sensation when it was revealed by local media that he and a gang of other armed civilians and plainclothed policemen had entered the building, saving dozens of hostages and providing cover fire for the rescue workers to try get people out. Abdul had gone in to rescue his brother, Nurudin. He managed to get Nurudin out, and by some estimates, rescued around 1 000 others. Abdul had been captured on camera by veteran Reuters photographer, Goran Tomasevic, rescuing a little girl, and combing through the mall's many hallways and shops for survivors, armed with his handgun. Abdul agreed to come to our "office" for a late-night interview. He was tired. His eyes haunted. But his story was one that uplifted us all. He described the moment that photograph was taken, of a tiny girl sprinting through the hall of the mall, under fire, towards him and other armed rescuers.

"We saw a lady hiding behind a table and we thought 'oh my god, she's right in the middle of the crossfire', we told her 'you need to run' and she whispered to us 'I have three kids'," he told me.

"I asked if she could get the oldest to run to us, and she said wait, and suddenly the little girl appeared and we coaxed her towards us. At that time I thought, she is a very very brave little girl, running towards people she doesn't know, holding guns."

More than a week later, Westgate and the area around it is quiet. The traffic is back. The puppy sellers are back. The journalists camped down the block have mostly packed up and left. International news outlets now headline with other stories. But it's all most of us talk about here. There are still so many unanswered questions. Kenya's Red Cross claims there are still more than 30 families with loved ones unaccounted for. Perhaps we will never know what happened inside Westgate for those 80-odd hours. Perhaps we don't want to know.

Personally, I will remember Westgate for the friendly people. One of the few places with escalators in Nairobi.  For the cheesy Christmas music and decor that appeared in November last year and for the delicious food and wonderful times I spent there.

I will remember Westgate because it enabled me to see and embrace the true welcoming Kenyan spirit. For heroes like Abdul Haji, who made me want to be a Kenyan. I refuse to remember it any other way.

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