Kenya terror attack: Scene outside Westgate mall

Black smoke rises over the Westgate mall as a result of a fire started by the terrorists. Picture: Reuters
Black smoke rises over the Westgate mall as a result of a fire started by the terrorists. Picture: Reuters
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It WAS a scene straight from an action movie when the besieged Westgate shopping mall was turned into a battle zone.

Military artillery, sporadic explosions and heavy gunfire stopped and started throughout the day, as the Kenya Defence Forces continued to battle al-Shabaab militants.

At least 20 explosions went off inside the building, as acrid black smoke billowed from the popular shopping venue. We were told the military had sealed off every entrance and exit to the mall to prevent the terrorists getting out.

At times, the place was quiet. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, people would be crawling on the ground as loud and, at times continuous, gunfire sounded out. The smell of smoke and teargas got so overpowering at times that many people were forced way back from the scene.

At the nearby Oshwal Centre – the Red Cross’s people-tracing hub – anxious relatives walked around in a collective daze. With every hour that passed, hopes of them being reunited with their loved ones dwindled. Their pain was unmistakable. And heart-breaking.

By mid-afternoon, the attackers had started firing into the Oshwal Centre, forcing an immediate lockdown. The noise was deafening and terrifying. But within minutes, military firepower had forced the attackers to retreat.

However, the move forced the military to ban the media from the centre, and journalists and media crews were pushed a further 300 metres away from the area.

We could not see much, but the sound of gunfire and the looming tear gas continued.

A stream of ambulances moved in and out of the area. We were later told they were transporting both injured people and the dead from the mall.

Government updates on the situation, which had turned into a stand-off, became more infrequent as the day wore on.

Many people with missing relatives were too terrified to speak to the nearby media, and we grappled for any indication of what was going on.

At one point, an Indian man, who told how his wife and child were trapped inside, threatened to storm in himself in a bid to rescue his loved ones. The wait was too painful for him. He felt helpless. We all did.

A scuffle ensued as police officers slowly and calmly restrained him. We asked if he believed he would see them alive again. He said no.

For hours, it seemed like everyone in Kenya – if not the whole world – was holding their breath, following speculation the terrorists had decided to burn down the building, not caring if they lived or died.

Interior secretary Joseph Ole Lenku later reassured the nation the terrorists were burning mattresses in a bid to distract the security officers as they sought an escape route.

His announcement that “only a few hostages remained” by mid-afternoon did not go down well with missing relatives, who were shocked at the news.

“Why is Mr Lenku acting so heartless and casual when I do not know the whereabouts of my sister and brother?” asked Carol Marete, as she waited anxiously outside the Oshwal Centre.

One man who had managed to escape, Anthony Odhiambo, returned to the scene of the siege in the afternoon. Clearly still shaken, he told how he had come back looking “for closure”.

“This is unbelievable, just unbelievable” he said.

A few minutes later, we met Meshack Orari, who learned his 25-year-old daughter had died. He told how he had frantically tried to call her mobile phone.

The heartbroken father, who lives up-country, had travelled hundreds of kilometres to get to the place where she died in an attempt to get some answers as to why she had been killed.

“She had just completed a diploma in tourism management and just wanted to make her own money,” he said, fighting back tears.

Another woman told how she had just learned her husband was among the dead.

Kenyans around the country remained glued to their television sets for any update on the situation, which has sent shockwaves around the world.

Some onlookers had started gathering near the mall by evening, and police were forced to throw tear gas at some of them to keep them back.

The terror attack has stoked feelings of unity and patriotism among Kenyans. It has also broken their hearts.