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westgate mall

Annalisa lives and works in Nairobi. She moved there with her husband and two daughters, nine and eleven, several years ago. She has a long history of relocations in Africa and Latin America. She has worked in Ethiopia, Gambia, Congo, Rwanda, Guatemala, alternating some periods in Italy with her stints abroad. When the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi occurred, Annalisa was inside with her two daughters. In this article she tells us about her terrible experience.

I was extremely lucky because I managed to escape from that hell of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi with my two daughters, without them seeing a single drop of blood. When the attack started I was coming out of the supermarket, and was about to move to the upper floors to do some shopping. Suddenly I heard two strong explosions: these were followed by smoke and gunshots.

I immediately understood that this was a terrorist attack. Since we arrived in Nairobi, security alerts identified the main city shopping malls as possible targets of terrorist attacks, during the worst crises in the Middle East, North Africa and Somalia. We were careful, but we were still going to the malls. As I heard the explosions, the image of the Twin Towers in New York flashed before my eyes; I told myself that we would all die crushed under the rubble if the terrorists blew themselves up and caused the mall to collapse.

I rushed towards a corner, hoping to locate an emergency exit, which luckily I found quickly. With my children I ventured beyond the door and went down the stairs. Still, it was impossible to get to the road because they were shooting, so we remained waiting, listening, on the emergency staircase.

More people joined us, some with children, and even babies. We crouched there and tried to pacify the children, who were terrorised. My two daughters were petrified. They kept on asking what was going on, and the only thing I could tell them was to stay calm, quiet, and not to worry, we would certainly get out safe and sound. From our refuge we heard screams and shots; time stood still.

After a while some security guards arrived and told us to stay calm, that they would come back to tell us when we could get out. For over an hour we remained alert, trying to locate where the shootings moved: from the first floor to the back of the supermarket, then above us, in what felt like hell. When the street got quieter, while the carnage was taking place on the top floor and in the parking lot, I decided it was time to try and escape. I went down pulling my children by the hand and I checked whether the situation in the street would allow us to get out. A security guard outside saw us and encouraged us to leave. Some people followed us, and we managed to escape.

One is never prepared enough for this kind of event. During the pre-election period there was a lot of training, all foreigners were in contact with their embassies, and we were aware of the risk of a possible attack in shopping malls. However after the elections nothing had happened and we were relatively calm. Life went back to normal.

Even though living constantly in the shadow of danger and never lowering our guard, this attack really took us by surprise. When I heard the explosion, it was like watching a nightmare come true. I told myself I had been foolish to go there, especially on a crowded Saturday at lunchtime. But the line between objective and subjective risk is very thin. You strive to maintain normality; but you cannot always live in fear of these things happening. And it could have happened anywhere in the world.

What helped me most to get out unhurt? Unfortunately I have to admit it was mostly luck. Not finding myself faced with the terrorists when they entered the Mall, quickly finding the emergency exit, and so on. Partly it was also my evaluation of the gravity of the situation and its possible development: I immediately identified the attack as a terrorist rather than a simply criminal act (for hours the text messages on my mobile mentioned robbers rather than terrorists); understanding what could be the most appropriate reaction: searching for a safe exit was the only way out (most people in the mall threw themselves on the ground to avoid stray bullets or sought refuge inside the shops and ended up either dead or trapped inside until night); maintaining lucidity and not being overwhelmed by panic, so as to be able to make the best choice at the right moment as fast as possible.

Having lived for years in conflict zones or in countries with high levels of criminality, the thought I’d like to share is that amongst all possible risks, being a target of terrorists is maybe the worst – both for the unpredictability of these acts, that upsets all reasonable precautions, and because in such situations you inevitably become the target to eliminate.


Nairobi, Kenya
February 2014

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