Nairobi, Kenya – September 21, 2013 began like any other day in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. It was a Saturday, and Ben Mulwa, a community organiser and politician, planned to meet two friends for lunch. They met around 11am at the Pony Plaza, and a couple of hours later they got into Mulwa’s car and drove to the adjacent Westgate Shopping Mall, to eat at the popular rooftop Java Café.
They drove through the main gates, and waited in a queue of cars until they reached the security barrier at the front, where – as is standard in much of Nairobi – a guard inspected their car. That was when the first gunshot went off.
“We thought it was a robbery because there were many high-end shops there,” says Mulwa. But the shot was followed by a second, then a third and fourth. “Within a few minutes, it got so intense. People were screaming all over, running.”
Mulwa’s car was trapped between the car behind it and the security barrier in front, so the only option for escape was to get out. “Still in my mind, I thought these intensified shots were because these guys were trying to clear traffic to exit through the Nakumat [a supermarket],” he told Al Jazeera.
Unsure which direction the bullets were coming from, Mulwa and his friends jumped out of the car and dispersed. One ran up to the rooftop; the other to the basement. Mulwa, still convinced it was a robbery, stayed near the car, ducking behind a low wall that he hoped would protect him from flying bullets.
“That’s when I saw all the security guards take off,” he said. “Some ran upwards towards the rooftop; others ran towards the basement. One hid right opposite where I was.”
At this point, Mulwa saw four gunmen approach. It crossed his mind that the situation might be more serious than he had thought.
Unknown to Mulwa, this was not a robbery: It was a coordinated attack by al-Shabab, the armed group based in neighbouring Somalia. The attack on Westgate – a shopping mall of choice for politicians, diplomats, and expatriates – was retaliation for the Kenyan military’s offensive against al-Shabab in Somalia. The siege lasted for three days. Now, one year later, the impact of this attack is still felt.
One of the men fired into the security booth. A second gunman pointed his gun towards Mulwa and the security guard opposite him. A shot rang out and blood splattered. The guard had been shot in the head. He died instantly.
“The whole of that morning I had been playing with my daughter, who was 11 months old. All I remember is that I cried out – ‘God, why do you want me to leave my daughter?’ That’s when I heard the second gunshot. It was so loud. I wasn’t sure if I’d been shot or not,” he said.
Mulwa found himself lying flat on the ground. He closed his eyes and stayed very still. He heard the gunshots receding as the gunmen moved to another area.
It was terrible. I tell you it was terrible. The gunshots were too loud for anyone. Too loud.
Anne Moraa was inside Westgate Mall that day, working at the leather handbag shop she ran. The mall was always busy on a Saturday, and she had sold several pieces that morning. Moraa was alone in the shop – her colleague had popped out – when she heard the first gunshots. Like Mulwa, she assumed it was a robbery, perhaps targeting one of the many bank branches in the mall.
“People were shouting ‘al-Shabab’. I went to see. I saw someone with a wrap on his face – you could see only the eyes. That’s when it got me,” she said. Without stopping to lock the shop, Moraa fled, hiding in the kitchen of the Java Café. It was a small space, but 12 people – including children – were crammed inside.
“It was terrible. I tell you it was terrible,” she said. “The gunshots were too loud for anyone. Too loud.” Moraa had her phone, and called her brother-in-law, who worked for a major media group, to let him know what was happening. As news of the siege of Westgate Mall spread across the world, a Kenyan news programme phoned Moraa and spoke to her live on air.
“The anchor asked where we were hiding and I said it was in the kitchen of Java,” she said. It was a risky decision. “The gunmen were in Nakumat. They had the TV on, so they could hear where we were hiding.”
Fortunately, the police – in the throes of a rescue mission – also heard. After nearly three hours crammed in the confined space, they were rescued. “They were knocking, but we didn’t know if it was police. The coming out was the most scary, because you don’t know where you are going, and you don’t know who is watching you,” she said.
In the parking lot, Mulwa was also rescued by police, but not unscathed. Soon after the gunmen had left him for dead, he heard somebody calling out for people to come forward with their hands raised. Thinking it was a trick, he stayed still. From the corner of his eye, he saw people walk out.
“There was a gentleman who was holding two kids. And he had a lot of blood on his shirt and the two kids were screaming and he was screaming, and they walked out of the gates. I imagined it was probably alright,” Mulwa said. He stood up and was struck by a sharp pain in his knee, then noticed a huge pool of blood on the floor. He had been shot in the leg.
The police spotted him and carried him to a car. He was taken to the nearest hospital. Mulwa was one of the first people to be treated; his ordeal had lasted 45 minutes. “That’s when people started coming into the hospital, and I have never seen a scene like that. People had been so badly injured from their heads all over their body.” It was only when he saw the television in the reception that he realised that Westgate Mall was under siege by terrorists. In all, 67 people lost their lives, and more than 175 people were injured.
One year later, the attack continues to resonate – not just for the survivors, but for Kenyan society at large. Security checks at hotels and malls in Nairobi are ever more stringent. The country is losing its status as a safe haven in the region, with terror attacks continuing across the country. The tourist industry, which makes up 12 percent of the economy, has been badly hit, with thousands of hotel workers laid off in the coastal regions after Western governments issued travel warnings.
Both Mulwa and Moraa escaped with their lives, but for them and other survivors, the effects are far-reaching. “I have been traumatised,” said Moraa. “Most of us are getting better with time. But I rarely go to malls. I work, I go back home. I avoid busy places. You don’t know what might happen.”
Business, too, has suffered. Her shop, like many others, was looted for cash and expensive products. Her company had leased their space in Westgate for three years. Now, with the centre burnt out and reconstruction slow, they do not have a retail outlet, operating instead from a warehouse building in the Central Business District. When rebuilding is completed, it will present its own challenges. “Personally, I wouldn’t want to go back there,” she said.
Mulwa, too, is still coming to terms with what happened. “I think about it a lot – every time a new incident of terrorism occurs. It was a very traumatising experience.”