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How I Survived the Nairobi Mall Terrorist Attack

When terrorists attacked one of the busiest malls in Kenya, this writer and her husband found themselves trapped inside.

The Westgate mall is left smouldering following the terrorist attack.

You’ll feel better the more you can tell your story,” my therapist said. “It’s important after a trauma like this for you to process what happened.”

But this wasn’t getting any easier, no matter how many times I told her about the terrorist attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall that day. Reliving it was painful, like picking shrapnel out of a wound. Would it always be this way?

My husband, Simon, and I almost never went to the mall. For 20 years–nearly our entire marriage–we’d run a safari company, taking tourists out into the African bush. Si was the guide. I did the administrative work.

I went with him whenever I could. Cooking over a fire. Sleeping under the stars. Our only neighbors lions and elephants, giraffes and zebras. The Kenya I love. There was no place on earth I’d rather be.

That Saturday, September 21, 2013, we had the day off. Just Si and me. Our two kids, Phoebe and Sebastian, were away at college.

“Let’s go to the mall,” Si said. We had it all planned. Sushi for lunch. Then a movie, Red II, with Bruce Willis playing a retired CIA officer who saves the world from terrorists.

We got there a little after noon and drove up a ramp to the roof of the parking garage on the third floor of the huge upscale shopping center. We parked and walked toward the mall entrance past a sea of cars and a crowd milling around a children’s cooking competition. Simon reached for the door.

Poppop- pop! From inside. Firecrackers? No, gunshots! Someone’s shooting! We ran. Maybe 20 of us. Across the parking lot to the ramp. I looked down at the level below. That’s when I saw the two men, firing AK-47s, mowing people down. Screams filled the air.

One of the terrorists dropped something. He bent down. Then he looked up and his eyes met mine. Someone yelled, just as the men pointed their rifles at us.

We ran again, to the opposite corner, across from the entrance, beside the now abandoned cooking competition. There was a fire-escape door there. But it was locked. We were trapped! Across the parking lot I could see the terrorists coming, methodically shooting anyone in their path, adults and children.

They wore button-down shirts and jeans. Black scarves around their faces. One took something from his backpack and hurled it at us. Grenade!

We threw ourselves to the ground and crawled for the nearest vehicles. Si wedged himself under a Range Rover. I squeezed under the car next to it, along with two other men, just as the grenade exploded. Two children, a boy and girl, stood next to the Range Rover, crying.

“Get under here. Now!” Si hissed at them. They quickly obeyed. I could see the terrorists’ boots. They were standing so close I could hear them breathing. If we made the slightest sound, we’d be killed.

My cell phone. I inched my fingers into my pants pocket and pulled out my phone. Put it on silent.

“Listen, people,” one of the terrorists said. “We are here to kill you.” He spoke in English, calmly, as if he were commenting on the weather.

Another explosion. I turned my head away from the blast. Car alarms blared. I heard a loud pop. Then a moan. I looked over to warn Si not to make any noise. His eyes were closed. Blood pooled from under him. Si! He needed me. But I didn’t dare move. He must be in such pain. Was he even breathing?

Please, God, don’t let Simon die! It was more a reflex than a conscious prayer.

I looked at my husband, lying there motionless. Hang on, Si. Don’t let go. Was this how the life we’d built together was going to end, in senseless slaughter in a mall parking lot? Simon and I felt proud and blessed to call ourselves Kenyan. Both of our families had lived here for three generations.

In the first years of our marriage we’d managed a 40,000-acre camp in the bush. No electricity. No running water. Things we discovered we could live without. What sustained us was the warmth and love of the people, the camp’s African staff.

I knew Kenya would always be our home. It was where we were destined to be. We’d stayed even after so many others had fled. Raised our children to appreciate the beauty and culture of this country.

Sebastian and Phoebe were still just kids, not ready to be on their own yet. They needed their parents–one of us, at least. I don’t care if it’s me or Si, I pleaded with God, but please let one of us live.

Except for the car alarms, there was an eerie stillness. For the first time since the attack had begun no one was screaming. Where were the attackers? I couldn’t see their boots anymore.

I looked more closely at Si. His eyes flickered open. “I love you,” he mouthed. I wanted to go to him. To hold him. To get help. Could I risk it?

I pulled out my phone. My right side was wedged against the man next to me. I could only use my left hand. I texted our friend Tom: Help we r hostages at westgate mall si shot.

Immediately he texted back. Just heard the news. What can I do? The terrorists. They were back. Yelling something I couldn’t make out. Firing their rifles.

Hurriedly I texted, We need security the men are still here we need army. I hit Send and shoved the phone back in my pocket. Instantly I felt it buzz. Worse, I heard it. What was I doing? Buzz. I turned the phone off.

More gunfire. A woman fell to the ground. “Help me,” she moaned. Boom! A massive fireball right in front of me. A terrorist had shot a propane canister from the cooking demonstration.

I couldn’t stop trembling. But Si…he wasn’t moving. His eyes were closed. Please, God, don’t let him bleed to death, I prayed. With every minute that passed, Si was slipping away. Where was Bruce Willis when you needed him? Why was no one coming to rescue us?

Again quiet fell. Were the terrorists toying with us? Just waiting, for whatever reason, to kill the rest of us? I fished out my phone and risked turning it on. It was 1:30 p.m. We’d been trapped here for an hour. Another text from Tom: Where in westgate are you?

On rooftop, I replied.

Ok understood. Ambulances, we are around the corner. A squad is in building engaging terrorists. Just need to wait it out.

Wait it out? People were seriously wounded. Dying. Si needed help now! The minutes crept by. A half hour. An hour. The terrorists were going back and forth between the mall and the parking lot. Hunting down anyone still among the living.

From the other side of the lot I heard gunfire. Closer now. Then a private security guard knelt down in the space between the cars, beside Simon and me, his face just inches from mine. “We’re getting you out of here,” he whispered.

I scrambled out from under the car. “My husband. He’s been shot.”

With a groan, Si rolled from under the Range Rover. Blood streamed from a nasty wound in his right arm. The guard had a first-aid kit. He put a tourniquet on the arm. “Can you stand up?” he asked. Si shook his head, his face ashen.

The guard turned to me. “I’m sorry, but you have to leave him. Ambulances are coming, but not until this area is more secure. Our orders are to get everyone out that we can now.”

I looked at Si. Through this entire ordeal we’d been there for each other. As in every challenge we’d faced in our marriage. Twenty-two years together. “I’ll go when he goes,” I said.

The guard gave us water, then left with the two children Si had protected and the men who’d huddled beside me.

Si’s gaze and mine locked in a kind of embrace. With fewer of us left on the roof, we were more of a target. I heard gunfire inside the mall. We needed to get out of the open, but Si was too weak to move, even with my aid. The only thing I could do was lie beside him and try to shield him from the sun. When the gunmen returned, we’d be killed.

That was all I could think about for 30 long minutes. Finally, ambulances raced up the ramp. My phone buzzed. A text from Phoebe: Mama don’t go to Westgate its bad there.

I didn’t want to worry her. We are fine, I texted.

I hit Send just as paramedics rushed up with a stretcher. They carried Si to the ambulance. I climbed in with him. We drove through the parking lot. It looked like a battlefield.

At last, the hospital! Si was rushed into surgery. I sat in the waiting room and called Phoebe. “There’s something I need to tell you….”

Si had been shot once, in the abdomen, but the bullet had fragmented and ripped through his body, leaving wounds in his arm and lower back. Over the next days, through six operations, he clung to life.

The news reported that more than 60 people had been killed, nearly 200 injured. I felt grateful to be alive, but still I grieved, for Si, for the others wounded and killed. For Kenya. I had nightmares that I was back at the mall, terrorists stalking me. That’s when a friend called, a psychologist.

“Tell me what happened,” she said.

It took time, more than a dozen sessions, but slowly, haltingly, I discovered she was right. The more I told my story, the less tormented I felt. With each telling I found friends, even strangers, reaching out, wanting to help. Praying for us, for the healing both Si and I needed.

Of course there are challenges, dangers, as there are anywhere. But I don’t live in fear. A year after the attack, Si and I are back doing what we love, taking tourists on safari, sharing the beauty and wonder of our country and its people. Our people. Kenyans all.


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