September 27, 2013 6:56 pm

Tales of horror and heroism emerge from Kenya mall attack

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“They’re just killing people; it’s crazy,” Mitul Shah told a relative over the phone from Westgate shopping mall. Next came four shots. Mr Shah was dead.

At lunchtime last Saturday, the 38-year-old was hosting a cooking competition for children on the open-air rooftop of the upmarket mall, a weekend destination for the Kenyan capital’s growing middle class and its affluent expatriates.

The competition was in full flow when gunmen arrived on the rooftop. They threw grenades. Some adults trampled the children, trying to escape. Then the terrorists took aim and killed people one at a time. Mr Shah stayed behind to protect the children. It was his company; he felt responsible. He saved many lives before he, too, was shot.

Outside the mall, another team of attackers threw grenades, killing people in their cars. Two Frenchwomen, mother and daughter, died in each others arms. The attackers walked up the steps and entered the building. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta’s nephew, Mbugua Mwangi, and his fiancée Rosemary Wahito, due to marry next month, were killed.

A third team went to the basement. Witnesses say the attackers, who covered their faces, freed some captives who identified themselves as Muslim. Al-Shabaab, an Islamist jihadi group from Somalia, claimed responsibility, although overlapping terror networks including from Kenya may also be involved and the government has blamed al-Qaeda.

Elsewhere in the Kenyan capital and around the world, reports were starting to filter out of an incident at the shopping centre. At this stage, it was unclear that what was unfolding was Kenya’s worst terror attack in 15 years, which would kill at least 67 people and injure 240 others.

But initial reports on Saturday suggested that it might be a robbery. An armed guard delivering cash to DTB bank fired at the attackers. Other people with weapons joined in, including armed guards, plain clothes police, reservists and civilian volunteers with a weapon handy, and the attackers took cover in Nakumatt, a ground floor supermarket.

Within an hour, Abbas Gullet ducked snipers to arrive at what was left of the cookery competition. The secretary-general of Kenya’s Red Cross had been on his way to pick up his children from Koranic school nearby when he heard the news. He had left his family in a nearby car park and ran up the ramp towards the carnage. When he saw an unexploded grenade, he surrounded it using shopping trolleys. For the next seven hours, without a flak jacket, Mr Gullet went from shop to shop, rescuing people under gunfire

Around the mall, people played dead, twitching or smearing themselves with blood to fool the gunmen. Others hid under restaurant tables, in cupboards, bank vaults, air vents and stores. Nearly 40 adults – staff and customers – and two children, sheltered in a small back office at mobile phone company Safaricom for three hours before they were rescued.

It is not clear how many people were in the mall at the busiest time of the week. Safaricom tracked its signals and found 576 customers’ phones in the building just before the siege. Given the company’s share in the mobile market, it indicates that nearly 900 people, not counting small children, were in the mall when the killing started.

The impromptu efforts of the rescuers saved many lives, frustrating what security services say was the attackers’ plan to close off the mall’s exit points and barricade themselves inside. As the afternoon wore on, hundreds of people streamed out into the open. “We got lots and lots of people out – that’s what people should celebrate,” says Mr Gullet.

But as more uniformed help arrived – first police and then the army – it became hard to identify fellow rescuers. The different rescue groups shot at each other. This forced rescuers to withdraw from the mall, allowing the terrorists to regroup.

The attack that had started a few hours earlier turned into a siege with hostages. The attackers had many advantages. They were well trained and their wealth of equipment, including machine guns and Kalashnikovs, added to suspicions that they had established a weapons’ arsenal in the building, possibly by renting a shop. They ensconced themselves on the third and fourth floors and turned the lights on when soldiers tried to break through.

“These people are very well trained. They know the building, they know where it is bulletproof, they have kill zones, they ambush us and they don’t fire a lot,” said a sergeant. “They don’t need to come out alive, I think they are just having fun in there.”

None of the soldiers knew how many attackers they were dealing with. Estimates vary from 10-18. Experts are now poring over grainy CCTV footage to try to count them and identify any dummy runs ahead of the attack. “What’s scary about this is the terrorists were able to come here completely under the radar; we did not have a whisper,” said a western diplomat.

On Sunday, the army returned with better weapons. They began several fierce raids into the building over the next two days in an attempt to oust the attackers. A terrorist sniper shot at gas cylinders in the car park, sending volunteers at an emergency medical centre across the road diving for cover. The army turned to explosives to force a way in. In their forays in the mall, they may have triggered booby-traps laid by the terrorists. Black smoke rose over the mall.

The army launched a frontal attack on Monday, triggering a hail of gunfire and explosions. That evening, the government said they controlled every floor of the building. The military continued to search the building for booby traps and terrorists. On Tuesday, as three days of explosions took their toll, three floors in part of the mall caved in. Later that day Mr Kenyatta declared the siege was over.

Volunteers kept coming. A nationwide appeal for blood delivered in four days what would usually take eight months to collect. The search for bodies continues, with 50 body-bags on standby as experts sift the wreckage.

On Thursday, a thousand people gathered for the funeral service of Mitul Shah, hailed as a hero. Many wore white T-shirts bearing his likeness. “Mitul’s spirit lives on, in all of us,” they read.

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