Although Westgate mall is about 15 minutes from my house, I rarely shop there. There are often too many people at the mall on weekends and I find it hectic.
Saturday was an exception I made because I wanted to spend my time with my daughter-in-law, Amina*, and some of our friends whose children were competing in the junior chef competition.
We were on the rooftop by 11am. The cooking competition was already underway. The morning had all the makings of a nice day out.
After a while, Amina decided to head downstairs into the mall to grab a bite. I wasn’t particularly hungry so I decided to stay back. I wanted to watch the children cook.
About a quarter to one o’clock, Amina was yet to make her way back to the rooftop. But I was not worried and remained so until I heard the sound of gunshots.
I CAN HEAR GUNSHOTS
I reacted by calling my son. He works in security and I thought that perhaps he might be able to help.
“There is shooting here,” I told him. “I can hear gunshots. Please do what you can.”
The call was brief because I wanted to speak with my daughter-in-law. Over the phone, she told me that she was hiding in a bank at the mall. She insisted that she was safe and asked me to look out for myself.
Our conversation ended abruptly when I saw the two figures coming up to the rooftop. They had guns and it took me a moment to notice the grenades hanging from their belts.
Their faces were uncovered, exposed to us as if they almost didn’t care if we could identify them later. I immediately began to suspect that I would not be leaving Westgate alive.
In that moment, the fear was devastating. When the gunmen begun shooting, the crowd broke into screams. People started running in panic, with little sense of direction. I was also jolted into action. I ran into the tent that had acted as a kitchen for the children and hid myself there.
At first, I thought they were shooting at random. However, I soon noticed that people running and screaming were most often the ones hit by the bullets. Amid the noise, I heard the gunmen call out for the Muslims.
“If you are Muslim,” they said, “you can get up and leave.”
But it wasn’t that easy. Muslims had to prove their faith. They had to recite verses from the Koran before they could be set free. And even then, you could still lose your life. One lady, who said she was a Muslim but did not “look like a Muslim” was shot.
I am not quite sure why I didn’t profess my religion. Perhaps it was out of fear. Perhaps it was out of a sense of defiance.
Hidden behind boxes and tables in the tent, strangers became closer than friends. The gunmen must have known our location; there were only so many places we could have hidden on the rooftop.
Nevertheless, we calmed each other, urged the children to be quiet as if in our utter silence we could suddenly become invincible. But despite our best efforts, some of the youngest children still cried, instinctively aware of the danger.
We prayed. We sent pleas to our Creator in our quietest whispers, certain that this was our last day on earth.
We must have been hidden for at least 20 minutes when I heard one of the gunmen receive a call on his mobile phone. He was not loud, but the calm voice speaking in Kiswahili was surprisingly easy to pick out.
His exact words are difficult to recall. But he said that he had killed many and more were injured. A few minutes after he received the call, the gunmen shot randomly on the rooftop and left. Looking back, I think these last shots were meant to scare us more so that we would not move.
We were rescued shortly afterwards and as I walked through Westgate, past the corpses, I felt helpless that I could not do anything to stop this. It had only been about an hour since our ordeal had begun.
I was free but my daughter-in-law was still stuck in the mall. When I called her, she reassured me that she was safe in her usual manner. She urged me not to worry, an impossible request.
Amina was rescued at around six o’clock. The hours my son and I spent at a friend’s house waiting for word from her were tense. I have never been as relieved as I was when she called my son to go pick her up from Visa Oshwal.
More than 24 hours after my nice day out with my daughter-in-law turned into a nightmare, I am still shaken. However, I am happy to be alive and I am very grateful that Amina and I made it out of Westgate with no injuries.
*Name changed on request of the witness
COURTESY OF KENYA’S NATION