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The siege

Prologue

“I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was driving to get my camera cleaned. All I had was one camera, one lens to test it with and a single memory card. A friend called saying he couldn’t get hold of his wife or daughter and was worried – he’d heard that shots had been fired in Westland, the suburb where Westgate Mall is, and that they could be in the area. I said I’d go and see if I could find out what was going on. On the way I saw two policemen. I pulled over and asked them if they knew what was happening. They  thought it was a bank robbery and they were on their way, so I gave them a lift. We got to within a kilometre of the mall and there was a sea of people, there was no way the car could get past, so we got out and fought our way through.”

The arrival

“When we first arrived the groups coming out were very small, one or two people at a time. You couldn’t make any sense of what they were saying, they were just petrified. The picture with the women with the bandaged feet, that was when they started coming out thick and fast. The lady with the gunshot wound was the first person I saw with visible injuries. Then there was a woman being carried out with shrapnel wounds, not gunshot. This was when we realised it was bigger than a simple bank robbery. They were using grenades. The guy with the vest – that’s a cop. He had to take his shirt off as there was gunfire being returned from the mall, so all the cops took their shirts off so nobody would know who they were.”

The basement

“Initially I wasn’t thinking about taking pictures, I was thinking about getting people out. The guy pushing the trolley is a dentist at the Kenyan National Hospital and was ridiculously brave. He kept going in with this trolley, trying to get the wounded out. The trolley was heavy, so I helped him push. The police were providing cover and we kept running in and out.”

Into the mall

“After a while we realised we couldn’t get in through the basement. Above it there was another service entrance and that’s how we got in to the mall, passing the child’s shoe on the way. I went in with this policeman, still thinking I would help to get people out. Outside there was a serious exchange of gunfire, but inside it was eerily silent, no guns, no police radios: you felt like even your breathing was too loud. When there’s noise you know where not to go, but with nothing we were feeling around in the dark. I don’t think anyone had seen anything like this – not the cops, not the security forces, nobody. It doesn’t matter how many dress rehearsals you have, there’s nothing that prepares you for the real thing.

I checked my phone and the battery was nearly empty. I sent two texts – one to my parents, one to a close friend saying, ‘I’m inside, stuff’s going on, but don’t worry I’ll be fine’. Then the phone went dead.”

The cinema

We went up the escalators to where the cinema is. This was one of the entry points the terrorists had used, they had gone into the cinemas firing. When we got there the films were still playing.  Then the Kenyan Defence Force entered, the bomb squad. The most obvious theory now was that these guys were fundamentalists and one thing fundamentalists are good at is knowing when their number is up. So a bomb made sense – in my head the only logical move for the terrorists at that point was to level the place.”

Hope

“For me, the picture of the woman by the escalator tells the story of what happened inside. It shows how unprepared people were for what happened. You can see that she struggled to live. Her shoes have fallen off and you could tell she struggled on, but there was no help for her there. Can you imagine going into Marks & Spencer to buy a sandwich or Selfridges to buy some shoes and somebody comes in firing? It was brutal.”

It is difficult to describe the carnage, everything we saw. There were bodies everywhere. We looked down and we saw this woman and children lying perfectly still. There was no way of telling if she was alive or dead. I remember holding my breath, staring. Then her leg moved ever so slightly and you knew she wasn’t dead, but you couldn’t tell how alive she was. She turned out to be one of the good stories, she was alive. She told her kids to pretend to be dead so they’d leave her alone and a rescue operation went in and got them all out. I didn’t know that at the time. Hope was a lost notion by then – a very lost notion.”

Nakumatt supermarket

“The attackers had herded people into the biggest space possible. That place was Nakumatt – a big supermarket on the lower floor. I realised I hadn’t seen a single bad guy fatality that I knew of, just a lot of civilians and a few security personnel.
I realised again how good these guys were.

The guys in the helmets are the counter terrorist squad – the best of the best. This shot is taken above Nakumatt, on its mezzanine floor. They are talking to the hostages below. We didn’t know at the time but there was a sniper in there watching us all the time. He watched everything and chose when to shoot.”

Fresh air

“After the gunfire, all the security forces were pushed back to the second floor and I went with them. I just needed to be outside, to get some fresh air. But there was no fresh air. we came across the scene of the Cook Off [a children’s cookery competition that was taking place when the attacks began, resulting in multiple fatalities]. The bodies hadn’t been moved but by that point I couldn’t take another picture of another body. It was brutal. I couldn’t shoot it. Everything was intense, but the Cook Off was overwhelming.

“On the way out I saw two injured policemen that I recognised. One was the counter terrorist officer in the checked shirt. The other was the policeman I’d gone in with originally.” 

“We got out. There was a fire in Nakumatt by now and these guys were trying to break through the skylight and put it out. The glass was ridiculously thick, they were trying to smash it with a parking sign.” 

“The final shot is about 8pm. This frame kind of sums up the day. It was eight or nine hours after I got there and nobody could process what had happened.”

Epilogue

“After that first day I couldn’t get near the mall and I got more disconnected from the story. The morning of the next day the security cordon was further out, and carried on moving further and further. There was no information, nothing real to report on. It was hard to make sense of anything. We lost all touch with the story. People were reduced to chasing ambulances or waiting outside the morgue to see how many bodies were in there. I never did a morgue shift, but we were reduced to taking shots with 1,000+ extender lenses just to get pictures of smoke. There’s still no closure, still no answers.

The thing about all this is that Nairobi’s my home. When you’re a photojournalist you go away on assignments to get in trouble. Your bag’s packed, your camera is charged, your boots are ready and so are you. This wasn’t like that at all. This was my home, it was supposed to be sacred. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon and I was slightly hungover from a typical boys’ night out. It was so unexpected. This was the mall, where people hang out, where I hung out, and this is how it ended up. And I think that’s what everyone struggles with.”

 

 

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