By Stephen Kafeero
A Ugandan Westgate Mall attack survivor tells a chilling story of how he escaped by the skin of his teeth
Seated in his office, Richard Mauku says he counts himself very lucky to be alive today. Together with some of his colleagues from the Uganda Hotels, Food, Tourism and Allied Workers’ Union (UHFTAWU), he was inside the Westgate Mall when the terror attack happened. He escaped without a scratch but he could easily have been one of the 67 people who died and the over 175 who are nursing bullet wounds in the 4-day siege.
The team of eight had gone to Nairobi for union conferences. On the fateful day, they had planned meetings with employers of organizations that hail from Kenya, which included Nakumatt supermarkets among others.
Around 10.30 am, they arrived to have a meeting with Nakumatt directors at Nakumatt City Mall in Nairobi but when the boss came, he decided that they go to the bigger mall and also do a tour of the facility.
At about 11:50 the team arrived at Westgate but immediately they entered Westgate just as the managers were receiving them, power went off in the whole building. It took over two minutes for the emergency lights to go on upon which they continued the tour with the Nakumatt director.
“It is at this point that we heard gun shots and people began panicking and running in all directions. A very huge glass poster with the inscriptions Nakumatt Westgate was shot into and it burst as if a bomb had gone off, this increased the fear among the people, and they knocked each other or the stalls trying to flee,” recalls Mauku.
“In about two minutes we heard the main entrance door being shut, so we went and hid in the wine cellars and immediately we entered, we had some one shooting from just outside where we were.”
He adds that a glass partition separated them from the man who was shooting and they could only see the soles of his shoes. “He would shoot kill people and move to another place and then come back,” said Mauku, his face showing the tension. “He kept communicating in three languages English, Arabic and Kiswahili but we couldn’t make sense of what he was saying except when he spoke English to his victims.”
In the beginning they imagined that the person was a policeman because the information that they got initially from those running from the main entrance was that it was the robbers who had come to rob a bank.
“So we kept seating there imagining that it was the police exchanging fire with the robbers and whenever they would kill you would hear somebody yelling and imagine it is a robber or an innocent person.”
His colleague made two attempts to call this person because they wanted to come out. The whole incident began at almost 12.00 and it was 2.00 pm but the shooting was continuing. Some of our colleagues would go and fix themselves into the coolers where they keep the crates.
The terrorist were just shooting anybody and anyhow but in the beginning you could hear them ask people their names and would demand that they read something in Islam to prove that one was a muslim. They wouldn’t kill you if you did. They would even aid the women who were putting on hijab (a veil that covers the head and chest, which is particularly worn by Muslim women.)
At about 3.00 pm, the general secretary of the union called them on the mobile phone to check whether they were still alive. He himself had had narrowly survived because they shot where he was and bullets were showered into buckets of yoghurt above him. The person next to him was actually shot and fell on him so his whole body was a mixture of blood and yoghurt.
They got to know that it was a terrorist attack and not robbers as they had thought. “He (the general secretary) told us to find any means of getting out of Westgate and gave us direction because he knew the place where we were hiding,” said Mauku.
He says he left where he was sitting on the carton of wines and went where the chairman was sitting on the trolley. The rest were hiding in the fridges.” “I told them that according to the information I have got, remaining here may imply death and so is trying to get out, but let us make a choice and my position is if these are terrorists, am not remaining here because the next thing might be a bomb going off.”
“Every time their powerful guns sounded, I felt as if my skin was tearing yet the shooting was at close range. It was not a simple matter because some of my colleagues had even said their last prayers. Somehow, I imagined that I would survive and told them that lets walk out because the general secretary had assured us that some people are being evacuated,” he adds.
They decided to move. One of our officers, a lady in charge of education and training, grabbed my shirt and tried to enter it but could not because it was too small. So she got a grip on me. At this point I began imagining the fact that we had tried calling a terrorist thinking that he was a police officer. I boldly walked out but setting foot in the corridor, it was full of blood.
When we got near the toilets, two Nakumatt employees who I recognized by their uniforms peeped and I asked them where the exit was and immediately a white man came who I think was a member of security because he would even go into the corridors to rescue anybody who came out showed us the but told us to run and it is at this point that a group of people hiding in used boxes emerged. We were among a group of about 100 that were evacuated at ago.
Mauku says that to his surprise, when they came out they just joined the crowd that had gathered outside comprising of mainly staff from the mall and other survivors and onlookers who had come to see what was going on. In his mind, he thought they were going to be screened first because you couldn’t tell who the terrorist was and who wasn’t. It was not to be.
They took another 30 minutes in the crowd but the Kenyan police was just pleading with people to extend yet you could see some people up which I suspect were terrorists pulling curtains to check what was happening.
Even if these people wanted they could have killed us as we stood outside. We felt it was safer to go away. By 4 pm when they left, no screening was being done and even if one was a terrorist, all they had to do was to leave their gun and walk away.
As the fear continued to take its toll, they booked into two hotels but opted to check out because they no checking was done. “You could not sit in a huge building with many people knowing that you have entered unchecked yet other people were dying in the vicinity,” says Mauku.
Shockingly up to the time they left Kenya, they never interacted with any security officer neither were they get anyone asking them what they saw, which raises important questions about the manner the attack was handled by the Kenyan security. For now, Mauku is only thankful to God he and all his team was able to come back home alive.