Some Hid, Others Played Dead as Gunmen Stalked the Mall in Nairobi Siege
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.
Janet Mbugua waited hours for her turn. "This is one of the most horrible days in Kenya's history," said the television journalist who works with a local station. Sitting down and waiting for the needle she continued: "When you give blood you can make a difference. This can really save people's lives, it's a tangible way of support."
The bursts of automatic gunfire and explosions that continued sporadically until late on Sunday were agonising for those with friends and relatives inside.
Among them was Johnson Mungai a 23-year-old Kenyan whose weekend get-together with his family went horribly wrong. He had begun the day in high spirits going to collect his older sister, Mercy, who lives and works between Scotland and East Africa and was flying in that morning. The newly qualified cargo pilot drove his 24-year-old sister straight to Westgate where their grandfather was waiting with Mungai's other two sisters, Irene, 18, and Monica, 16.
He dropped Mercy off at the gates to the mall, and went to run an errand. In less than an hour he was back at the scene coming to terms with the news that they had been caught up in the siege. In the hours that followed he kept in touch with his grandfather by text message as he hid in a shop. Only his youngest sister, Monica, had escaped. She had gone to the bathroom and coming out to rejoin her relatives had been swept up with some terrified women who tried to run for one of the exits. She told her brother how, while she was running, the woman next to her was cut down in a hail of bullets mid-stride. "She told me that she never wants to go back in there again."
Slumped on the floor at the reception centre about 200 metres from Westgate, where many families have been keeping vigil, he was becoming increasingly angry with his government's handling of the crisis.
The police had taken Mungai's phone from him to contact his grandfather but had run down the battery and were not immediately able to help him recharge it. "The police have made things worse, they didn't seem to have any real plan."
Along with other distraught relatives, he complained that the only help had come from individuals rather than the state. No tents or emergency shelter had been provided and there was no answer on the four phone lines set up for concerned relatives looking for information.
As it got dark and the helicopters droned overhead in the direction of Westgate he added: "It's evening and what will happen tonight? We'll have to sleep out here with nothing. The terrorists who planned this must be very happy knowing they've been able to stop the government of a country for more than 24 hours."