NAIROBI, Kenya – It’s 1:30 on Saturday in the Westgate Mall. Rafia Khan is huddling in a crawl space with her cousin and eight other people as gunmen roam the building and shoot, again and again, into crowds of shoppers.
While they are hiding, word spreads by text messages that Islamic militants have taken control of the shopping mall that houses the casino. Word also spreads that the gunmen are allowing Muslims to leave — testing them by asking about their knowledge of Islam.
Khan and her cousin are the only Muslims among the group. They decide to teach the others — perfect strangers — to recite the Shahada, the short Arabic-language creed that proclaims there is only one God and Muhammed is his prophet.
Over and over, Khan whispers the words slowly and phonetically, as if to a child: “La il-a-ha il-Al-lah wa Mu-ham-mad ru-soul Al-Lah.”
Saturdays are crowded at the Westgate Mall, Nairobi’s most elite retail destination and a crossroads of the global economy. Rich foreign businessmen go there, as do wealthy Kenyans. There are shopping diplomats, and aid workers watching movies. They stroll the Nakumatt grocery store and have sandwiches at Java House. They buy sunglasses, silk shirts and phones.
Much of Kenya lives on less than a couple of dollars a day, but these poor also come to Westgate. They work inside, carrying boxes at the supermarket, sweeping the marble floors. Or they just come to watch.
On this Saturday, though, they would watch children weep and watch them die. They would leave injured friends behind. At least 67 would die in what became a four-day siege by extremists from Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based, Muslim militant group.
‘Can u message us?’
This is what happened in those first hours. About 12:36 p.m., authorities believe there are as few as six gunmen. The first team, wearing bulletproof vests, storms the front entrance, throwing grenades and firing assault rifles as they run.
Few people think of terrorism when they hear the first explosion, and many think it’s an electrical box giving way under Nairobi’s unreliable power grid. But as one blast gives way to another and the clatter of machine-gun fire is heard, thousands of people know they need to move. But where?
Inside the crawl space at 12:57 p.m., Khan received texts from her 24-year-old daughter:
“Are you OK???”
“Can u message us Mum???”
Parking area, third-level rooftop, about 1:30 p.m.: The young mother watches the gunman shoot. Crowds of people are stumbling, screaming, falling around her.
He is calm. She is terrified.
Sneha Kothari-Mashru, 28 and a part-time radio DJ, watches through a tangle of her long brown hair, which she has thrown across her face to appear as if she is already among the dead. She has smeared blood onto her arm and her clothes, taking it from the corpse of a teenage boy. She has kicked off her blue high heels.
About 15 minutes later, she watches as the gunman speaks quietly to one family. She can’t hear what is said, but the wife is dressed in the billowing robes worn by highly observant Muslim women. Slowly, the family members stand, raise their hands above their heads, and walk away.
This is not the rule, however, in the attack. Dozens of Muslims are shot, and many are killed. Most often, the gunmen fire wildly, spraying bullets into crowds and not bothering to ask about religion.
‘Can you get up?’
Parking area, third-level rooftop, about 3 p.m.: Word goes out that someone has found a place to hide.
Kothari-Mashru decides to run. As she leaves, though, she sees her friend lying down, wounded. “Can you get up?” Kothari-Mashru asks.
Her friend has been shot three times. She smiles, but says she cannot move. As the crowds swarm toward what seems to be safety, Kothari-Mashru leaves. “It was heartbreaking,” she said.
Soon, Kothari-Mashru is among dozens of people on a back staircase heading to safety. As she races down, she runs into her husband, who had convinced two plainclothed policemen to help find her. Later, Kothari-Mashru’s friend was rescued.
About 4 p.m., police bang on the door outside the crawl space where Khan and the others have been hiding. They are escorted out by security forces, never forced to recite the creed.