Some Hid, Others Played Dead as Gunmen Stalked the Mall in Nairobi Siege
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Felix M. Cobos
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Peter Churchman waited for his wife as long as he could. Carrying his young niece in his arms, he wandered from one security official to another outside the Westgate mall in the first hours after the attack in Nairobi. Against a soundtrack of gunfire from the nearby building he begged for help or information. The Briton had been separated from his wife, Eva, inside, after the shopping centre came under attack from a group of suspected Islamist gunmen sending weekend shoppers fleeing.
After three hours of hiding under tables and cradling his niece against grenade blasts and automatic weapons fire, he had escaped and was frantically searching for her. Had anyone seen a Filipino woman, he asked, as each survivor trickled from the four-storey building.
He was forced from the scene when British officers from the Metropolitan police anti-terror unit arrived to assist Kenyan authorities and pushed for a secure cordon around the mall. "My niece and I were basically frogmarched up the road," he said. A good samaritan driving past recognised the bald Londoner from the crowds of survivors earlier in the day and offered him a lift to the house of a colleague from the Nairobi branch of the multinational bank where he has worked for the last two years. Like so many rescued, his phone had run out of power, cutting him off from any information about his missing wife. He asked for a lift home to collect a phone charger and his car so he could return and scour the crowds for Eva.
Arriving home, he found his wife waiting in the drive. She had been rescued by Kenyan police hours after he had escaped but had been unable to reach him as she could not recall his number.
Exiting from the far side of Westgate and separated by an exposed car park in easy line of fire of the attackers inside, she had been unable to look for her husband or niece on the other side. Instead she went to a nearby Kenyan-Indian community centre where she was treated for shock before a volunteer offered to drive her home. "It was an extraordinary reunion," said Churchman. "A huge relief."
As the death toll climbed on Sunday morning it became apparent that not every story from the Westgate mall would reach such a happy conclusion.
After the initial assault and the shootings that wounded nearly 200 people, dozens of survivors were scattered across the floors of the city's premier shopping centre. Some hid in shops, others played dead in the main concourse. Many had fled into the Nakumatt supermarket which sprawls over three storeys of Westgate. It was here that one of the main firefights between Kenyan security services and the attackers, thought to number between a dozen and 15 and believed to be members of the Somali Islamist militia al-Shabaab, took place at sunset on Saturday.
Trying to storm their way into the supermarket whose aisles are stacked with everything from food to plasma televisions, office furniture and motorcycles, the Kenyan force came under heavy fire. A Kenyan soldier described how a young Somali-looking man had attempted to surrender: "He came forward and handed us his gun. But then one of the others, even his own people, shot him."
As the scale of the tragedy became apparent, many in this often divided city of more than 4 million people took it on themselves to get involved. As well as the volunteers who flooded the makeshift victims' centre and the good samaritans who offered lifts to survivors, thousands turned out to give blood. By mid-morning on Sunday queues stretched around city blocks in central Nairobi – recalling the election earlier in the year.