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Best of Slow Journalism: A reconstruction of Westgate

Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

On 21st September 2013, four men entered the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and opened fire. In the hours that followed, at least 67 people would be murdered by the gunmen who carried out their attack in the name of Somali militant group al-Shabab. “The shooting on the rooftop was deliberate,” writes Tristan McConnell. “Bullets were not sprayed. They were placed: bang… bang… bang. Then a pause. Then a voice: ‘In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. We’ve come to kill you Christians and Kenyans for what you are doing in Somalia.'”

In this excellent piece for Foreign Policy, McConnell pieces together a detailed reconstruction of the Westgate siege. By interviewing survivors he brings to life the sheer horror of an attack that was “low-tech, low-cost, low-profile”, requiring no more than “four young men with a willingness to die, four assault rifles, and a handful of grenades”. McConnell describes how survivors played dead to stay alive, and how many of them were forced to watch others die just yards away.

McConnell asserts that initial reporting on the Westgate siege was “confused and contradictory”, relying too much on “false and misleading” statements by Kenyan authorities. In writing this new long-form account of the siege two years down the line, he delivers a scathing critique of the official response to the attack. According to McConnell, most of the 67 who died at Westgate Mall died in the first hour of the attack; an official operation by Kenyan security forces didn’t get underway until more than three hours later. By then, writes McConnell, it was too late: “Most of those who would escape had already escaped; most of those who would be wounded had already been struck; and most of those who would die were already dead.”

‘Close Your Eyes and Pretend to be Dead’ is a heartbreaking but essential read which builds a strong case for the need for slow journalism. You can read McConnell’s piece here.

McConnell has contributed to Delayed Gratification in the past. His piece ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, on the Somali chef who launched a restaurant in war-torn Mogadishu, is available here

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