'They came with no demands... they came to kill'
Survivors of Nairobi shooting tell of terrifying hours inside shopping centre hit by gunmen
THE top-floor car park at Westgate, Nairobi's swankiest shopping centre, was busier than usual yesterday. A film crew was there to record MasterChef Junior and the play area, with its bouncy castle and trampolines, was packed with dozens of children and their parents. Inside, the multi-storey mall was crowded with shoppers.
Karani Nyemo was walking towards his car with his two daughters when the shooting started. They started to run. There were short bursts of automatic rifle fire punctuated by grenade blasts.
"They were throwing grenades like maize to chickens," said the Kenyan software engineer. He pushed his girls under the car as people all around him were hit by automatic gunfire. One of my girls kept calling out to me, 'I want to go', but there was nothing I could do."
A grenade landed right next to his car, rolling only a few feet from one of his daughters, Mr Nyemo said – but it didn't explode.
Minutes earlier, two vehicles had screeched up outside the front of Westgate and a dozen gunmen, and at least one woman, jumped out. Jomo, who was in the outdoor car park opposite the shopping centre, saw 10 attackers split into two groups, one running up the steps and into the main pedestrian entrance. The other team opened fire and ran around to the vehicle entrance at the side of the building, hurling grenades. Last night, after a day of bloody horror, there were reports that one suspected gunman had been wounded and detained.
Peter Churchman, his wife and their young niece had been in the popular Art Caffe on the ground floor when the attack began. The first he knew of it was when a plate-glass window shattered. More gunshots followed and a loud blast. "I think it was a grenade, it made a lot of sound. We thought the attack was coming from outside so we ran towards the entrance."
In the commotion, with people running in all directions, Mr Churchman was separated from his wife, Eva. Hours later, carrying his niece, he was still wandering amid the ambulances, police and crowds outside asking if anyone had seen a Filipina.
Dozens of customers in the cafe, a hangout for well-off Kenyans, diplomats and expats, found themselves running towards the attackers in the main hall. Among them was a Kenyan-Indian woman who asked not to be named.
When she realised her mistake, she turned around, but had been separated from her sister. The cavernous interior was reverberating to the sound of heavy gunfire and explosions.
On the second floor, Joshua Hakim, who had stopped for a snack on his way to watch a rugby match, saw gunmen, some of whom looked young enough to be teenagers, strapped with ammunition belts and carrying AK-47 assault rifles.
"They were firing indiscriminately; they shot a lot of people," he said.
During a lull in the firing, the attackers called out in Swahili, a language widely spoken in Kenya and the rest of east Africa, for Muslims to identify themselves and leave.
Covering the Christian name on his ID with his thumb, he approached one of the attackers, whom he described as Somali, and showed them the plastic card. "They told me to go. Then an Indian man came forward and they said: 'What is the name of Muhammad's mother?' "When he couldn't answer, they just shot him, pop, pop. There's no way he was getting up again."
Many of the shocked survivors mingling with the crowds that gathered outside Westgate yesterday afternoon said there was little surprise at the choice of target. Since Kenya's invasion of neighbouring Somalia two years ago, there has been a wave of grenade attacks, usually blamed on Somalis living in Kenya. There has also been a constant rumble of warnings from the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab, who have threatened to bring down "the skyscrapers" of the Kenyan capital
Last night, the al-Shabaab group claimed responsibility for the murderous attack.
The Westgate mall, only 10 minutes from the centre of the city, in the Westlands neighbourhood, has long been talked about as a potential terror target. With upmarket patisseries, jewellery stores, a sushi restaurant and cinemas, it is a magnet for the well-off in a city characterised by sharp social divisions.
Across the road, a small community of squatters camp out and make their living selling everything from puppies to knocked-off football shirts, bananas and flowers to the passing drivers in their 4x4s.
Before sunset, hundreds of the street hawkers had gathered to watch the drama unfold. One man drew a storm of laughter when, after climbing on to an advertising hoarding to get a better view, he succeeded only in getting a shock from a power line.
The Israeli-owned mall was well aware of the security warnings and has precautions similar to an airport; cars entering the shopping centre are checked with mirrors for car bombs and people entering on foot are frisked for guns, knives or explosives.
Michael, one of the 40 or so private security guards, was in the basement when the assault began. Crouched behind a car in the parking lot that faces the mall, he described feeling helpless.
"We tried to help as many people as possible but I'm not going back in there. I don't have a gun and they have so many. I have a family to think about," he said.
Manoah Esipisu, a spokesman for the Kenyan presidency at the scene, refused to rule out as suspects the gangs of armed robbers that were being monitored by Kenyan police, but admitted al-Shabaab was among the possible culprits.
There were several indications that a robbery was unlikely. None of the survivors recalled anyone taking anything from the stores inside, while witnesses said the attackers had appeared intent on killing from the moment they arrived.
A stone's throw away from Mr Esipisu was a white car with bullet holes through the windscreen. The body of a white woman had been recovered shortly before. She was shot dead by the attackers before they entered the main building.
Standing a few feet away, Frank Musunga, an off-duty soldier who had been shopping with a friend when the attack began, described what he had seen. "They were carrying a lot of guns with them, they were shooting, shooting, shooting. I saw bodies in the corridors."
He was unable to confirm the number of casualties, but it later transpired that at least 100 people had been wounded. The attackers were wearing civilian clothes, he added, and at least one of them was a woman. They were using high-calibre military weapons.
The largest number of casualties was expected to come from the car park on top of the mall, he said.
By mid-afternoon, four hours after the attack, survivors were still trickling out from the building.
Slumped on the pavement near an ambulance was Hilda. Dressed in a silver jumpsuit, with her face covered in little stars, she and her friends had been doing a cosmetics promotion. "When the shooting started we ran into the pharmacy and hid. There were so many people running everywhere."
She described hiding behind the counter for three hours while the shooting continued. Eventually, an armed police unit rescued them.
Next to her on the floor was Mary Mulwa, who worked in the large supermarket where hundreds of people had tried to hide. Shaking from the shock, she had to be carried away on a stretcher by paramedics.
By the time Mr Nyemo returned to the scene after taking his daughters home, helicopters circled the Nairobi sky and teams of heavily armed police had moved into the mall.
Still wearing a shirt stained with the blood of someone who had been shot while standing next to him, he said there would be no hostage stand-off: "They're not taking hostages, they came with no demands, they came to kill."