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Westgate attack: A tale of nerve-wracking experiences

18 September 2014, 12:01 Betha Madhomu, News24

Cape Town – Kenyan journalists have described as "horrific" the 21 September attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi that left at least 67 people dead.

Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants armed with AK47s stormed the prestigious mall and started shooting randomly, killing innocent men, women and children.

As Nairobi-based AFPTV journalist Nichole Sobecki said at the time: "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."

News24 spoke to Kenyan journalists who covered the incident and evidently, most of them were still struggling to come to terms with what transpired on that fateful day.

Read also: Saved from Westgate death by oil leak

'My hear beat so fast'

Kevin Otiende, a journalist with China Central television (CCTV Africa) said he got to know about the attack through a friend.

"My friend called me [on the phone] informing me of a robbery in progress at Westgate Mall. Soon after, someone else phoned and informed me the robbers had killed nine people," said Otiende.

Otiende said in the initial confusion of the attack, everybody thought the militants were gangsters. It was only after reports about nine people being killed that "I knew Kenya was under attack".

And his first reaction: "I was quite chilled, my heart beat so fast. At that time some local channels had already started showing videos of what was happening – children screaming, dead bodies, and wounded cops. Everything just went so cold for me. I called my boss and requested a cameraman and equipment."

Watch the video below of the mall attack

Sleepless nights

What followed thereafter was an intensive coverage of the incident which saw him undergoing four sleepless nights as he camped with other journalists outside the mall, keeping the world informed.

But was he not scared for his own life?

"At such a time, the impact of tragedy is that it invokes patriotism, and unites a people. As a journalist, you want to cry, show you're human, but then you have to realise that a story has to be told, and you have been chosen to tell the story," said Otiende.

"The authorities gave journalists bullet proof vests, and helmets. We were asked to take cover behind a building under construction next to Westgate so we were adequately protected. But we kept hearing bullets flying all over the place, and we had to lie down on dirty ground each time."

Otiende, however, said everybody, including soldiers was scared as the four-day siege continued.

Read also: Westgate Mall siege haunts one year on

'Confusion all over'

"Everybody was scared. You could see even the soldiers with red eyes, journalists with bags on their eyes. We couldn't sleep properly for the next four days," he said.

Dennis Masinde, a journalist with News24 Kenya said he had been at the mall in the morning with his cousin but had left just before the attack.

"I together with my cousin left the mall for his office which is about 800 metres from Westgate. When the first gunshots rung, we heard them clearly and dismissed them as a routine robbery incident," said Masinde.

As the gunshots kept ringing Masinde who at that time was working for the Nation Media Group, rushed to the scene.

"I got at the mall to find confusion all over and that was when I realised that it was probably something bigger ... I was not far from the entrance when I saw two bodies lying on the ground and lots of blood. I called the office and told them to send a team over," said Masinde.

"I saw police scampering for safety. It was a scary moment for me, particularly when I saw people coming out of the building all bloodied."

Families of the deceased

Masinde also went to the city mortuary where he met families of the decease.

"People were crying, not knowing what to do. Everyone just seemed to be in total disbelief of what had happened," he said.

Dennis Omido, who also works for News24 Kenya, said as soon as he got to the mall, he asked a security guard what was happening and all he kept saying was: "Al-Shabaab. They are around 10 people with guns we usually see in films."

As Omido was still trying to ascertain what was happening, a speeding police landrover came out of the mall and it was full of dead bodies stained with blood.

"I couldn't believe what I saw. All I could hear were gunshots and siren sounds from ambulances. Everyone seemed to be running for their lives. As horrific as the incident was, I took out my camera and began taking pictures," said Omido.  

See Dennis Omido's gallery of pictures here.

Omido said within a short while he saw the Kenyan army arriving in armoured vehicles and rushing straight into the mall where gunshots could be heard.

"I was really scared but I remembered I was a journalist and my duty was to inform the world. So I picked courage and clicked my camera.It was my first time to cover a story of such magnitude but I'm glad I managed to take some pictures and I live to tell what I saw,"said Omido.

Sam Kasika, a freelance journalist remembers the tight security at the mall and how he managed to carry out his duties on the day.

"I was not so scared to cover the incident because I have the passion for journalism to keep people informed, and also our point of coverage from the mall was not that risky for the terrorist's bullet to reach us [press]," said Kasika.

The Westgate mall remains closed to date although major renovations are under way. According to the journalists, the mall is expected to re-open in the in a few months time.

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- News24

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