Why I went in to the Nairobi mall when others fled
- 25 September 2013
- From the section Magazine
When video journalist Nichole Sobecki (above) arrived at the Westgate mall in Nairobi on Saturday, she saw a stream of people running out of the building. But as others escaped from the gunmen who had opened fire, the AFP reporter decided to go into the complex. Here she tells her story.
I could see that ambulances were picking people up and trying to get them out from the third floor, so I thought that might be an opportunity to get inside.
When I got close to the third floor entrance of the mall I followed a security officer inside and linked up with another security team.
I never saw any of the attackers. It was unclear where the shooters were, so we were sweeping from shop to shop through the mall trying to locate the shooters and also looking for civilians that were trapped, and trying to get them out to safety.
When I first arrived in the mall a security team was trying to disable the elevators to prevent the attackers from moving between floors and popping out and surprising someone.
Before they were able to to that, one of the elevator doors did open and a middle-aged woman crawled out - she was obviously terrified and they were able to get her out quickly to safety.
It seemed like everywhere we looked, more people would come out as soon as they realised that this was the security forces and that they were safe, or at least that they had an opportunity to try to get out.
People were hiding in air vents, crouched on the floor, hiding in cinemas, casinos, beauty salons, locking themselves in.
This is a mall that I go to frequently. It's not far from where I live and to see it become the scene of terror was absolutely surreal - the mall soundtrack with pop music continuing to play but otherwise the sort of eerie silence, bursts of gunfire.
I have covered conflict before in a more conventional sense, in Afghanistan and Somalia - places where you go and you have an expectation of what you are going to find. To see a mall on a busy Saturday afternoon transformed into such horror was really surprising.
I was inside the mall for about three hours, and of course you are afraid in these situations, it's very stressful, you are always looking where you could find cover if you have to move, which direction you will be going in.
We were with a team of security forces and you just need to make sure that you are staying rational, that you are making good decisions and that you are not putting your life or the lives of anyone around you at any greater risk.
There was little the security forces could do aside from trying to get people out.
They were searching them on their way out to make sure that no-one was armed, to make sure that anyone leaving the building was doing it as a civilian. But if some of the attackers did try to pose as civilians there was not that much that they could do. They had to get people out, they had to evacuate the mall and that was a risk.
Any attack of this sort is meant to divide people and the more [Kenyans] can reach out together as they have been, donating blood, coming together to call for unity, making sure that there is no backlash on the Somali community in Kenya, I think that is what is going to make Kenya move forward after this horrible attack.
Nichole Sobecki spoke to Newsday on the BBC World Service.