Ambulances were lining up outside Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall, and helicopters circled overhead. When I arrived Saturday afternoon in the mall’s parking lot, policemen, AK-47s and pistols drawn, were running around, speaking into walkie-talkies. The crowd of journalists and onlookers was growing.
People were reporting that a dozen or more assailants, armed with automatic rifles and grenades, had stormed the mall around lunchtime. After a series of explosions, they had shot, it seemed, whomever they could—men, women, children, the elderly. Estimates of fatalities kept climbing; the siege would last through the night, and by Sunday the Kenyan government would claim fifty-nine dead, a hundred and seventy-five wounded, and dozens missing. Among them, according to news reports, were not just Kenyans, but Americans, Europeans and Canadians.
“I heard an explosion—at first I thought it was a transformer exploding,” Zulekha Abass, who lives directly across from Westgate with her family, told me. Then she heard another, and another. “Thud, thud, thud.” Then shooting.
As we talked, sporadic gunfire reverberated within the mall, and a group of people rushed out. Medics led them to a triage center that had been set up by the Red Cross across the road. In the group was Caroline Fowler, a woman from Washington, D.C. She was shaking, and had what appeared to be bloodstains on her pants. She had been waiting for a taxi at the front entrance, she told me, when the shooting started. She ran inside, into a tapas restaurant. “We hid under the bar for a little while. Then the shooting was louder and I saw a man and I saw a gun,” she said, struggling to catch her breath. They snuck from the bar, and then “we all hid in the kitchen.”
Westgate is a large building in Westlands, Nairobi’s upscale commercial district and its expatriate social hub. On Saturdays the mall is full of families from around the world. It’s a symbol of Kenya’s status as the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan country in East Africa. And Kenyans and expats alike have long observed—until yesterday, often enough with a laugh—that with its worldly crowd and lax security, Westgate is also an ideal target for terrorists.
Another group rushed from the mall. Some had their hands raised, to show they were unarmed; many were crying, others hyperventilating. A woman whose hands and forearms were covered in dried blood told me that she and her husband had left Westgate and were getting into their car when two men with AK-47s approached it. One pointed his rifle at her. “So I do this,” the woman, Sangu Shah, said, putting her hands together in prayer and lowering her head, “and closed my eyes. And I don’t know what happened, I’m not even very sure what has happened. The next thing I hear is his phone ringing. And I just opened the door to see he’s lying there.” Her husband had been shot. “I think it’s in the head,” she said.
A man yelled at her to stay still. All of the traffic in front of the mall had stopped. There was gunfire all around her, and she saw people climbing under their cars. Shah’s husband lay on the ground, bleeding badly. She slid down in her seat, trying to grab hold of him through the open door. “All I could see was just blood and I couldn’t do anything,” she said. He struggled for an hour. “He stopped breathing at, like, one thirty-five,” Shah said, matter-of-factly, looking at her watch.In the triage center, Shah sat next to a Kenyan woman named Maggie. They did not know each other, but Maggie held Shah’s hand. Maggie had been parking her car inside the mall, she said, when she heard gunfire. “They sounded really loud and we didn’t know if it was bombs or whatever so people ran out of the basement towards the exit,” she said. But, when they got to the exit, they heard more shooting from outside. So they ran back in. Maggie found a pair of large decorative rocks, and hid between them. “I heard a lot of shooting so I just stayed there,” she said. “On the outside was absolutely quiet but on the inside was gunfire, gunfire.”
When the shooting ceased, Maggie ran from the mall. Outside she watched as two gunmen, whom she described as young and light-skinned, approached a man. “He lay down,” she said. “And at close range they just shot him.”
By four o’clock in the afternoon, the crowd outside Westgate was in the hundreds. Ambulances were backing up in a steady stream to the entrance, as bodies were carried out and loaded into them. The death toll was rising. One Kenyan photographer I spoke with, who’d made his way up an exterior car ramp to an upper level of the mall, said he had counted forty-two bodies along the way. A medic told me that he removed fifteen corpses just from the lobby. Some were still clutching cellphones to their heads. “There was a pregnant woman on the floor, dead” he said. “She was hugging a man. He was also dead. I guess it was her husband.”
When he heard the first explosions, Zulekha Abass’s husband ran from their house and into Westgate. He was one of many Nairobians who risked his life to try to save people. He’d been inside for hours when she and I spoke, calling her when he could. I asked her how she was so calm. “He went in to do the right thing,” she said.
Survivors were claiming that after entering stores and restaurants, the gunmen told Muslims to leave. A police officer told me, “I heard these guys, they came in and asked, ‘Are you Christian?’ They shot you. ‘Are you Muslim?’ They let you go.” Maggie claims that as the gunmen shot the man on the ground, they yelled, “Allahu Akbar!”
Immediately, suspicions turned to al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist group. These suspicions seemed to be confirmed when Shabaab’s Twitter account lit up Saturday night. Lately, the main sponsor of Somalia’s ongoing civil war, Shabaab is believed to have sponsored a campaign of terrorism and kidnapping in Kenya. In 2011, the Kenyan Defense Forces invaded al-Shabaab’s base in southern Somalia in an effort to eliminate the group, which has been vowing revenge since. Shabaab refers to itself on Twitter as H.S.M., an abbreviation of its official name, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen. “HSM has on numerous occasions warned the #Kenyan government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia would have severe consequences,” the first tweet read. Then: “The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia #Westgate” And: “Since our last contact, the Mujahideen inside the mall confirmed to @HSM_Press that they killed over 100 Kenyan kuffar & battle is ongoing.”As the afternoon wore on, Kenyan military units arrived. A group of soldiers in camouflage made their way toward the mall, leading German Shepherds. They were followed by a body-armor-clad team with high-powered rifles and riot shields that made its way up the exterior ramp and inside. Later, an armored personnel carrier pulled up to Westgate’s front entrance, and soldiers emerged and took up positions outside.
President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the country Saturday night. “We shall hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to. We shall get them,” he said. “We shall punish them for this heinous crime.” Meanwhile, an unknown number of hostages were being held inside the mall, by an unknown number of assailants.
Seven hours in, with an end to the siege nowhere in sight, it had grown dark, and a light drizzle was falling. There hadn’t been any shooting for a while, and the crowd was inching closer to the mall. Suddenly, a burst of loud volleys and explosions—this time not from inside the mall, but outside it. The crowd ran for cover. I ducked behind a Toyota S.U.V. After a minute, I poked my head up. A security guard smiled and beckoned me to the other side of the Toyota. There were fresh bullet holes in the doors and windows. “See how close we came?” he said.
Photograph by Simon Maina/AFP/Getty.