A grocery chain owner, Sandeep, was at the Westgate mall in Nairobi over the weekend to help with a children’s cooking competition. In an interview with writer Neelam Verjee, he recounts the ensuing attack, his attempts to evacuate people, and his return to work. Edited excerpts:
At 12:31 p.m., I bought some bread from the café on the ground floor. I know the exact time because later that day, I checked the date stamp on the receipt. I took the elevator up to the second floor, where the SuperChef cooking competition for children was taking place. As I stepped out of the elevator, I heard gunshots. I looked over the railings and saw people on the floor. I immediately realized we were under attack. I ran out onto the roof where the competition was taking place, and shouted for the gas to be switched off. There were about 100 children present. We heard more gunshots and everyone dived for cover. I was inside the marquee that had been set up for the competition. A grenade landed close by. A bullet hit the gas pipe next to me and sparked a flame, which burnt my arm. I moved again, this time into the open, and found myself next to a Chinese boy. His leg was broken. He asked me to put it straight. Then he asked me to hold his hand. He was about 12 or 13 years old. He did not know his father’s phone number. His mother had been badly wounded. I found out that she later died of her injuries. There were three gunmen spraying bullets everywhere. A Kenyan Indian woman begged them to spare the children. One replied: “When you came to Somalia, were you thinking about our women and children?” before killing her, together with her grandchild. An eerie silence followed. Into the silence, they took calls on their mobile phones, and exchanged some words, before shooting off more rounds and leaving.
A man appeared from behind the marquee. He told me I had to start moving. He was alone, so I asked how I could help him. Together, we moved everyone over a fence and into the courtyard of the Java café. I have no idea what he did with them from there. Some women could not jump the fence so I had to push them. I took some children and women down the fire escape, to the ground floor. A reservist directed us out. Because I was not armed, the police would not let me go back up to get more people. It was then that I felt the pain from my burns. I broke down. I was taken to a hospital and I passed out.
I could not forget the Chinese boy, and it haunted me that I did not get him out. Later in the day, I went around to all the hospitals until I eventually found him. He was with his aunt and I don’t think he knew that his mother was dead. There were so many people asking for help. I can hear their voices calling out to me to help them. It is why I cannot sleep at night.
The government has to rethink safety. Security as it is at the big malls is a currently waste of time. But of all the malls, the security at Westgate was the best. Protective gear needs to go, not just to the special forces, but also to the guards on the front line. We need greater inter-community cooperation and information sharing, so we are all better equipped for such situations.
Life goes on and business goes on. I went to work at 6:30 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday. We cannot sit back and say that we are defeated.