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Journalist inside Nairobi mall tells tales of horror, heroism

  • An image grab taken from footage shot by AFPTV's Nichole Sobecki shows a member of the Kenyan security forces taking position inside a shopping mall following an attack by masked gunmen in Nairobi on September 21, 2013.AFPTV

  • An image grab taken from footage shot by AFPTV's Nichole Sobecki shows shoppers taking cover inside the Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013.AFPTV

  • An image grab taken from Nichole Sobecki's AFPTV footage shows civilians taking cover behind a bar inside a shopping mall following an attack by masked gunmen in Nairobi on September 21, 2013.AFP

Nairobi's Westgate mall, with its designer shops and restaurants, has become a symbol of Kenya's rising prosperity. On Saturday, September 21, it became the scene of one of the most chilling attacks in East Africa's history, claiming the lives of at least 69 people.

Nairobi-based AFPTV journalist Nichole Sobecki was the only television journalist able to gain access to the Westgate mall, just after the attack started. Following is her account of the horrific events:

I was at home editing when a neighbour told me about the attack. I called AFP, then my husband, Tyler Hicks, a photojournalist for the New York Times.

At that moment, he was at a framing shop in an adjacent mall, picking up some pictures of our wedding. He only had a small camera and he told me to bring him his equipment.

After gathering this and my own video equipment, flak jacket and Kevlar helmet, I headed to cover the story for AFP.

I've covered many conflicts before, including Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan -- so am used to seeing scenes of violence. But to find this taking place in a mall I know well, just minutes from my home, was completely surreal.

Arriving at the scene, people were running from the mall, holding hands, many in tears. Closer in, those who'd been shot were being helped by other civilians, and cars were acting as ambulances, transporting the injured to nearby hospitals.

I went to an area near the mall's main entrance, where a small crowd of journalists and medical teams had gathered. But from outside, I couldn't get a clear idea of what was going on inside the complex, where security forces were battling the attackers.

I tried to assess the situation by asking colleagues and members of the rescue teams. Then I decided to go inside.

Along with my husband, I followed the ramp to an entrance on the third floor of the Westgate, from where ambulances were transporting victims of the attack.

Once inside, I linked up with a team of security forces who were trying to jam the elevators to prevent the attackers from getting into them. Before they could disable the lifts, the doors of one opened and a middle-aged woman crawled out, uttering a low cry before quickly being escorted outside by a member of the security team.

From our vantage point, I could see down to the lower floors of the mall, where the bodies of some victims of the attack lay -- their lives so unexpectedly cut short.

On the first floor, a woman sprawled face down on the floor by a cafe counter waiting to be rescued, her arm held out across two young children in a gesture of protection. They were later escorted out of the mall by security forces.

The feeling of danger was everywhere

The usual sounds of conversation and commerce were replaced by an eery silence, the occasional burst of gunfire, and tired pop songs still playing from the mall's sound system.

The security team I was with began moving through shops, beauty salons and hallways, looking for the shooters who were still inside, and trying to evacuate civilians.

Clearing the way through service entrances, we made it to a sushi restaurant where a young waitress and two men had hidden inside an air vent during the attack.

At the cinema, troops searched dozens of civilians on the escalator before being evacuated. Soldiers crouched low beneath a poster of Matt Damon's latest action film in a bizarre juxtaposition of reality and fiction. News of the ongoing attack was broadcast from flatscreen TVs in a toy store. Unverified rumours spread that some of the attackers had explosives strapped to them.

We stayed around three hours inside the mall. I never saw the gunmen. The only weapons I saw were those being carried by security forces. But the feeling of danger was everywhere. It was a very stressful situation. I tried to remain calm and rational, to take clear decisions.

After several hours inside the mall, we were able to make it to the ground floor, where troops remained locked in battle with the remaining shooters at the Nakumatt Supermarket.

Jutting out from behind the statue of an elephant were the legs of yet another victim. As more security forces moved into the store I and the other journalists remaining inside were asked to leave through the main entrance, where bodies had been piled up by the shooters to hinder access to the mall.

Amidst these scenes of horror, I was also witness to moments of fellowship. Strangers helping each other away from danger. The bravery of members of the security forces and civilians. Crowds lining up to donate blood. In a country too often characterised by its divisions, that is the small glimpse I hope I take from one of Kenya's darkest days.