Africa

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Nairobi: Extraordinary images show bravery of mall hero who saved families from gunmen

Aislinn Laing in Nairobi

Published 27/09/2013|04:00

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Portia Walton (4) runs towards her rescuer Abdul Haji in an iconic picture from the Nairobi mall siege seen around the world
Abdul helps a mother and baby escape and below, the destroyed mall yesterday. Reuters/Goran Tomasevic/AP Photo

It was one of the most moving images of Kenya's Westgate Mall terror attack – a little girl running in terror across an empty corridor to the outstretched arm of her rescuer.

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Now we can tell the remarkable stories of both the child and her saviour. Portia is the four-year-old daughter of Americans Katherine and Philip Walton, both IT workers.

The man who saved her along with her mother and two sisters is Abdul Haji, a Somali Muslim and the son of a former Kenyan security minister.

Faced with a long afternoon trapped in the house with her five children last Saturday, Mrs Walton decided on a quick excursion – a trip to Nairobi's popular mall.

Her two teenage sons went ahead with Mrs Walton following shortly after with her three daughters, including Portia.

Four hours later, the family lay pinned to the ground opposite the supermarket where they did their weekly shop as gunmen hurled grenades and sprayed bullets just yards from them.

"We were just going to meet my two older boys when we heard an explosion," said Mrs Walton (38), from North Carolina who moved to Kenya with her family two years ago.

"I grabbed the girls and started running. A woman pulled us behind a promotional table opposite. I could see the bullets hitting above the shops and hear the screaming all around."

During their ordeal, the couple's three daughters, aged four, two and 13 months, were shielded and calmed by an injured Kenyan woman and two Indian women who hid with them.

Yards away from them, she saw a man with a pistol who was shooting at a heavily armed young jihadi in a bandana who was taunting him.

That man was Abdul Haji, who had rushed to the mall after getting a text message from his brother who was trapped inside.

"We saw a lot of dead people. Very young people, children, old ladies, you cannot imagine," Mr Haji told the Kenyan television station NTV.

Mr Haji said his father taught him to use a gun to protect their cattle from bandits when he was growing up.

Last Saturday, he used his skills to provide fire cover for the Kenyan Red Cross workers and, over a period of three hours, help to evacuate some of the 1,000 people who escaped the mall in the initial stages of a siege that would last three days and leave at least 72 dead.

As he stood with a fellow rescuer crouched outside the Nakumatt supermarket, Mr Haji said he noticed the women hiding under the table.

He asked the women to move towards them but they indicated they had children with them and could not all run together.

Mr Haji said he asked Mrs Walton if one of the older children could be encouraged to run towards him.

Portia emerged and ran across the deserted corridor.

The moment was captured by Reuters photographer, Goran Tomasevic, in a dramatic image that was beamed around the world.

Mr Walton, who during the siege was 9,000 miles away on a business trip to the United States, said he reacted in disbelief when he first saw the photograph of his daughter striking out alone across the mall. "She's not normally the kind of girl that would run to a stranger, particularly one with a gun," he said.

One by one, the Walton family emerged and ran with Mr Haji and other rescuers until they reached the police lines.

Mr Walton said there was no question that they would now be leaving Kenya. "There will always be bad people in the world but it's the comfort of knowing that there are good people that matters," he said. © Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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