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Witness: I saw a woman commanding attackers

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

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Frank Musungu, a warrant officer with the Department of Defence, was minding his business outside the Westgate Mall in Nairobi last Saturday when the unthinkable started to unfold. He was at the parking lot when he heard a gunshot and, thinking the place had been attacked by robbers who would scamper in a jiffy, shouted to those around him to lie down.

From his position on the ground, Musungu raised his head to see what was happening. The hooded gunmen had run into a man who had just stepped out of the mall. He has his hands in the air as a sign of surrender and Musungu expected that they would let the shopper off.

“Then one of them just pulled the trigger on the hapless man, killing him instantly,” he recalls. “I was horrified that someone could do that to another person. The man had already surrendered and was basically harmless.”
As those around the scene started wailing, several people, including one woman, entered the mall, shooting in the air and throwing the mall into a state of confusion. Musungu, together with a police officer in the mall, rushed towards the shot man, who was now sprawled on the ground.

FLYING BULLETS

One of the assailants turned back and fired at them. A bullet hit the police officer as, again, Musungu ducked to safety. The attacker then retrieved the dead officer’s gun and disappeared into the mall.

Inside, Satpal Singh, like Musungu, watched the events unfold. Bullets were flying all over the place, women and children wailing, and the smell of fresh blood assaulting his nostrils, but he, again like Musungu, decided to play hero, even if for only one minute, and save a life. As it turned out, he helped save two.

He was at the Java coffee house when the madness started. “I heard a burst of gunfire and rushed to see what was happening. I peeped through the large windows and saw a small cloud of smoke outside. People were running helter-skelter and there was a general sense of confusion about the scene.

“In the few minutes after the attack started, I could tell that no one knew what to do to save the situation. It was everyone for himself. I remember seeing young men and children running up and down the mall, looking for an exit, any exit, to save themselves. And that’s when it dawned on me that we were alone, that the security team had either been mowed down or immobilised. No one was going to give these people any sense of direction.”

In the middle of that confusion, Satpal asked some of the men with whom he was holed up in the building whether they would join him in trying to evacuate the injured. Five raised their hands and joined him.

Above them and around the mall, the sporadic burst of heavy gunfire continued, the attackers quickly taking charge of the massive establishment before police officers rushed in.

While Satpal had imagined that this was a run-of-the-mill robbery and he would be able to attend to the injured in a short while, the gravity of the situation dawned on him when he stepped out of his hiding place to witness the bloodbath inside the mall. Bodies were strewn all over the place as more fought for their dear lives, the shock on their eyes a haunting sight.

RESCUE PLANS FALL APART

The five, now joined by an armed police officer who had removed his uniform and was now in civilian clothes, agreed that their mission was to carry anybody who was alive outside for treatment. “A lot of people had been shot, we had to get them to help fast,” he says.

His first target was a man sprawled on a staircase. But as he made his way towards the injured man, a hooded loony emerged from nowhere brandishing a gun.

“His face will forever remain etched in my head,” says Satpal. “He towered over me approximately two metres up the staircase as I knelt to check the pulse of the poor man. I lifted my head just in time to see him raise his gun.”

The assailant fired two shots, but none of them caught Satpal, who was quick enough to dash down the staircase to relative safety. The attacker, whom he describes as “a young man who seemed angry”, carried a huge rifle and a small bag which appeared to be loaded with ammunition. Satpal dashed back to his colleagues only to find that the five had left, leaving the police officer alone. Their rescue plan was quickly falling apart.

The two, their force now decimated, decided to find their way out of the mall. As they crawled down the staircase, the horror of the massacre began to become evident to them. Tens of people were sprawled down their staircase, dead or dying after being shot as they ran to safety.

The gunmen must have followed the shoppers from behind, their automatic guns at the ready to shoot at anything that moved. Satpal and his colleague carried two men who seemed slightly hurt out of the mall to freedom.


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