September 21

Saturday morning started like every last weekend in the month for me. Quickly.

I rushed through errands in town in the morning, returned home to finish editing parts of the magazine and then prepared to spend the rest of the evening at work in Westlands.

Just as I left home – around half one in the afternoon – my friend K** called and said Westgate had been attacked by thugs and that our friend Sadia was one of those stuck inside the mall.

K** and I both deal with bad news in a strange way – with humour – and so we joked about how it was a good thing that the two of us weren’t social over the weekends. We talked about how we should get together that evening at Le Rustique to get a first hand account of the experience from Sadia.

I barreled out the door, thoughts of deadlines uppermost. As I arrived in the Parklands area, I began to hear the helicopters overhead and then I saw the cordoned off road heading to MP Shah Hospital with community policing units talking on handheld radios and directing traffic down the road.

The afternoon at work passed in a daze of tweets and news reports. Confusion about why robbers – who ought to have grabbed cash and exited quickly – were lingering in the upscale shopping mall, was quickly replaced with shock and horror as television and social media began to share stories of the indiscriminate gunfire, killing massacre and hostage situation.

I, like countless other Kenyans, began to text friends who could have been caught up in the nightmare and mentally ticked off the names of those who were safe.

Sonu smsed me from the inside and asked me to send her updates on what was happening. She was hiding with her husband, and had no idea what was happening and whether anyone was looking for them.

The afternoon was characterised by sirens of ambulances, the overhead drone of helicopters and the sound of gunfire that easily carried the 1km distance between our offices and Westgate.

At around 5, S**** smsed to say she was out. Shaken but safe. I ticked another name off my list, just as reports started to come in on Twitter of those who had not been as lucky. Names and faces that formed the social environment which we take for granted until one day the face disappears forever.

And then harrowing stories of survivors, injured but alive, who were arriving at hospitals across the city bleeding and traumatised with tales of what they had seen, what they had lived through.

It was nearly six by then and the rain clouds that had characterised Nairobi in the last two weeks appeared, signalling the end to a day that none of us wanted to end. With nightfall, we feared the carnage would continue and that the forces of evil would have the upper hand.

And all this time, there was still confusion and a total lack of understanding of what was happening or why. Victim accounts began to circulate of how the attackers spoke in foreign tongues, wore Arafat styled head scarves, carried double barreled guns, asked shoppers questions about Islam to ascertain their faith, released Muslims and killed non-Muslims … all sorts of details that hovered like black flies on a carcass obscuring any clarity about the situation.

Intelligence officers from international organisations could be seen interviewing hostages as they emerged from the building, and there was a sense of relief that Kenyan security forces were working with international groups.

Bewilderment however clouded the issue since a hostage situation was not the typical MO for Al Shabaab, and there were fears that the Westgate attack was more sophisticated and strategic than anyone had ever seen before from this group. There were also  rumours of women being among the group of attackers, the White Widow being one of them.

Hate messages against Muslims began to spiral on social media and television presenters tried to side step the mine fields. And the terror continued with sporadic rescues of hostages – selfless acts orchestrated by ordinary civilians, community policing units, Red Cross personnel and members of the Kenyan Army and Police. The painful images shared in local and international media share the gravity of the nightmarish event only too well.

Night fell, and still the gunfire continued as media clustered near the entrance of Westgate eager to see and hear what was happening. They gave the country a minute a minute coverage of events, and we from the safety of our homes watched the events unfold on our TV screens. We converted 180 character tweets of information into knowledge, and felt as if we were watching a movie.

This wasn’t real. This wasn’t Nairobi. This couldn’t be happening. Not in our country.

All this time, we questioned the military – for not doing enough, the President – for not coming out and addressing the nation, and the unknown attackers – and their barbaric massacre.

The sorrow and sense of tragedy intensified when President Kenyatta did at least address the country late that night because it was all too clear that he, along with the country, had family and friends inside Westgate at the time of the attack, and that some of them had not survived.

An all night vigil began as Kenyans slept just a handful of hours, consumed by fear for the innocents inside the mall and irrationally worried that if we slept, they would be forgotten. They would cease to exist.

The sun rose the next morning, and nothing had changed except that overnight the military personnel had pushed the media down the road and at a good distance from the mall. Their reporting and live coverage the day before, it seemed, had been too detailed and had jeopardised the secrecy of military operations.

It slowly appeared that little had changed as the siege entered its second day.

A terrified nation banded together and the first recipient of the overwrought emotions of Kenyans was the Sunday Nation who splayed a bleeding victim of the Westgate tragedy across their front page. Kenyans on Twitter attacked the publication, and the Nation eventually recalled its newspapers, and its CEO Linus Gitahi made a formal apology for their insensitivity in the country’s time of need – a first in Kenya’s history.

Off the Twitter Line, there was little activity. A handful of hostages had escaped mid morning. Intermittent bursts of gunfire had broken the tense silence. A barrage of rumours and analysis from laymen began to fill the endless wait and the nervous silence.

Frustrated by our inability to help, the authorities directed our energies to giving blood and donating food. And the city responded in overwhelming numbers. United in their grief. 

Sunday passed all too quickly with little news of what progress had been made during the day. We had all spoken to someone inside – someone who was trapped, scared, hungry and anxious to know whether anyone was coming for them.  And we could do nothing to assuage our fears that they had been forgotten.

These fears were punctuated by announcements of victims who had succumbed to their injuries. There were young men who had rushed in to rescue children. Others had gone back inside when they realised their loved ones had been left behind.

Night fell again – unbelievably – and dawn broke on the third day of siege at Nairobi’s Westgate mall.

The roads were quiet on the way to work, but in the mid afternoon, the level of activity stepped up. A huge explosion was heard just as a billow of black smoke erupted from the building. The loud bang was endorsed by the sharper volley of gunfire which continued through into the early evening. And still little information was available on what had happened? Whether the siege had finally been resolved? What the fate of the remaining hostages was?

It is 5:30pm now on Monday 23 September, and the rumble of choppers is just white noise. It has replaced the sound of horns and traffics on Nairobi roads.

We can only hope that as the sun sets on Nairobi tonight, the remaining hostages will be released alive and unharmed; and that the attackers will receive their reward.

For something that started so quickly, the slow pace of the end is unbearable.

God bless Kenya.

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