Businessman Abdul Haji and a small group of plain-clothes policemen helped to rescue dozens of people from the Westgate mall. He had gone in search of his brother, armed only with a pistol that his father – a former Kenyan defence minister – had taught him to hunt with as a child. He tells the BBC of his experiences:
I was on the other side of town when I received an SMS from my brother. The message was vague: “I’m stuck at the Westgate. Seems like a terrorist attack. Pray for me.”
It looked like a goodbye message so I immediately made my way there.
I found people congregated in front of the mall and there was shooting going on. The only thing going through my mind was to get my brother.
I remember saying to my friend: “I hope you carried enough ammo. Just remember to give me some more.”
At this point, the Kenya Red Cross arrived. We realised if there were any shooters they would have shot at us by now, so we thought: “Let’s get in.”
We could see survivors in the cars that had stalled in the entrance. Some were dead, some were injured.
We decided to go up through the ramp to the upper parking floor.
This is where we saw a lot of dead bodies – young children, elderly people, women – it was horrific. I’ve seen dead people before in roads accidents and at funerals, but never seen so many people just lying down bleeding.
There was nothing to do for the dead. We urged the Red Cross to come up with their stretchers.
Things were moving fast and we started to gain courage. We found ourselves in front of the Java restaurant – we could get into the mall from there.
One by one we went in, giving each other cover.
We couldn’t see any gunmen on the top floor. We saw that there were people hiding in the shops. We got closer and identified ourselves – we did this at every shop. We would say it in Swahili and in English.
Some of them were lying down as if they were dead. They would hear us calling out to help them, but they wouldn’t move. I think they were so petrified they couldn’t get up – we had to urge people to open the doors to the shops.
We could hear shooting from the ground floor so we went down the staircase and secured the first floor and tried to rescue as many as possible.
We had left some armed people on the top floor to cover us, and we did the same on the first floor. When we got to the ground, there were just five of us – three plain-clothes police and a gentleman who I established was a civilian.
But immediately the terrorists opened fire – they were waiting for us. That’s where they shot one of my colleagues. He was shot right in front of me, in the stomach.
We took him out through the ArtCaffe – it has a balcony where we could call in more help. In there were two other police officers with tear gas and protective gear, and at this point we thought we needed to re-strategise.
We tried our level best to get as many people out as possible, but I can’t give you a specific number.
We got a message from the Red Cross man, saying people were stuck in a room at the Westgate office management and that they were running out of air. So we went to get them – there was a small room which probably held 40 people.
In front of the Nakumatt supermarket there was a lady hiding underneath a promotional table. We knew we couldn’t engage the terrorists – the people were right in front of the crossfire – and it was a table, nothing concrete.
So we had to hold it. We divided the tear gas up between us and went back on the blind side of the terrorists.
We crossed in front of the pharmacy and the Kodak shop – we got people out of there. And then we came to a Samsung shop – got people out of there [too].
We got closer to the lady under the table. We told her she needed to run towards us. She said: “I have three kids hear with me. I cannot carry them.”
So I told her: “Tell the eldest child to run towards us the moment we throw the tear gas.” She shook her head in agreement.
We hurled the gas towards the entrance of Nakumatt and this gave us some cover. The girl started to run towards us. She was so brave, she didn’t cry.
An Asian lady carried another baby and I think the mother of the little girl carried another baby. We handed them to other people who got them out of the mall.
At this point, I asked my friend on the top floor about my brother. He said he was in the toilets on the ground floor, next to Nakumatt. I told my colleagues: “I have to go back round,” but I didn’t tell them why.
I said: “As soon as you see me get to the other side of the mall, hurl another tear gas grenade towards Nakumatt.”
They did this, and I made my way through to the toilets. I was shouting my brother’s name. I checked inside. There was nobody there. I went into the ladies’ toilet and I found some people in there, I told them to get out.
Unable to find his brother, Mr Haji checked his phone. He found a message telling him that his brother had escaped.
Tear gas was getting into my eyes, I was having trouble breathing. I was desperately looking for water to wash my eyes.
Then I remembered – I do a lot of my shopping at Westgate, I know the mall very well – that there is a burger restaurant right in front of the entrance and I would be able to find water.
But what I saw in there were more dead people.
I found a gentleman who’d been shot in the shoulder.
He said he couldn’t get up, I said: “Stay there, I will get help for you.” I threw some water into my face and at this point, the police starting coming.
I was outside the mall, and I said: “Come in, I have injured people you need to help.”
We found more survivors in the burger restaurant.
September 17, 2014 //
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