Westgate Terror; the heroes, power of social media and the things that changed forever

Social media was a crucial tool in the rescue effort and filled a gap in information at the time of the attacks.

SEPTEMBER 21 is a day that most Kenyans, people living in Kenya, and many in other parts of the world, will always remember. The images from that day circulated all over the globe are indelibly etched into many people’s minds, reminders of a horror the world has rarely seen. 

These are the images of the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, carried out by al-Shabaab militants, and which was declared over by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta after four agonising days. The siege was claimed by the extremists as a revenge mission for the entry of Kenya’s Defence Forces (KDF) into Somalia in 2011. 

Even a year on, many continue to shudder just at the thought of Westgate and the brutal attack on innocent civilians – which left at least 67 dead, 25% of which were foreigners, and hundreds injured - it fundamentally changed aspects of life in Kenya. 

There was a rise in xenophobia against Somali-Kenyans and many of them continue still complain of harassment. Traditional media struggled to catch up as users flocked to Twitter to watch a war of words between al-Shabaab and KDF force Twitter handles, as well as the information being spread by civilians. Because the attack was covered so extensively, it  brought a huge amount of attention to Kenya’s war with al-Shabaab compared to smaller grenade attacks previously. 

The attack bred insecurity in the minds of many. Westgate exposed a socio-political vacuum in the country, even if, fortunately, this gaping hole was quickly filled by various citizens and organisations.

Filling the “911” gap

In a situation of emergency there is usually a phone number to call for assistance from the police, fire department or ambulance. Unfortunately in Kenya this had for years been patchy– if told to call an emergency number the average Kenyan would not know one, though last December the number 999 was reactivated.

But at the time of the attack it was non-existent, a gap that was to be filled by a large cast of citizen heroes many of whose stories have been told, but some remained unsung. As Westgate began to unfold, it was documented real time on social media. One man who had his finger on this crucial pulse was Philip Ogola. Philip was running the Kenya Red Cross’s social media accounts that day and is credited with the tweet that confirmed the attack. He had been on his way to the “Safari Sevens”, an annual tournament run by the Kenya Rugby Union, when he was first alerted to gunshots in Westlands, the area of Nairobi where Westgate is located, via Twitter.

He did a quick “cloud” search on social media, verifying that several people were reporting the same and made his way to the office. Red Cross verified with the police that there was an incident and within 15 minutes they dispatched to the scene. Despite being charged with social media, it was “all hands on deck” - Philip was in the first ambulance and continued to monitor the chatter. This time however he was not just getting reports from the outside, but also from within Westgate, from people trapped in the building during the attack.

When they got to the scene Dr Abbas Gullet, the secretary-general of the Kenya Red Cross Society, was already on the ground. amid the gunfire, gathers the staff and volunteers. Despite not wearing bullet-proofs vests, Abbas took a small Red Cross team up to the rooftop car park where a children’s cooking contest had been taking place. “He was the incident commander and gave us a plan. He was very brave and inspired us to go in,” Philip said. 

“As we were coming up the ramp, at one point a bullet whizzed past my ear and hit a lady behind me. I was frozen for a moment. That bullet could have hit me…I will never forget the strong smell of blood everywhere”.

Philip was loading injured people into the ambulance and ducking under cars whenever bullets were fired—while all the time staying connected to social media. He is one of the many individuals who risked his own life to save lives that day.

Filling the information gap 

Social media was a crucial tool. Not only was Philip able to keep people away from the mall, updating followers with what was happening, he was also able to direct help to where there were victims inside the mall. Twitter was playing a critical role in the rescue effort, though it worried him a great deal at the time because people were openly giving away their hiding locations.

Philip also used Twitter as a hotline to help reunite families. The hash-tag #redcrosstrace was set up making it easier for missing persons to come together and to do follow ups.  Twitter was also used to mobilise Kenyans to give blood. “Never in the history of Kenya had we received so much blood in one day – guys [really] came to help,” said Philip, “over 17,000 pints were collected in day one of the attack.”

It was these key moments where people were visibly united on social media that kept Philip going. However, one notable absence in the early stages of this effort was the  government. Philip explained that the government should have done the same, they could have gathered intelligence, “they can see images, know what to expect” and plan for it. 

Philip at one point recalls going into the mall to evacuate injured people - at this stage it is expected that the focus of Nairobi’s police and army force would have been in assisting in that operation. Yet, as seen through the recent  HBO documentary, which documented the attack through the use of CCTV footage, and reports from eye-witnesses, there was another vacuum – a lack of a clearly organised and prompt effort by the forces. This was to be filled by a handful of individuals.

Filling the security gap

Harish Patel is a force to be reckoned with. He is one of the founders of the 27-year old “Krishna Squad” – a group of volunteers mobilised as a community protection force recognised by the government, and has seen his fair share of violence. Upon arrival at Westgate that day he was one of the first people into the mall to confront the terrorists and save lives.

When he got to where the security forces were outside of the mall it was “complete havoc,” he said. The army and police officers were standing there, still planning their move.

But Harish was used to these type of scenarios and along with another civilian called Abdul Haji (who was determined to rescue his brother), Corporal Nura Ali and five other plain-clothed police officers, Harish said that the question they all asked themselves was “what are we waiting for?” Harish said, “whoever has the balls, we go in. Either we kill them or they kill us.”

The effort made by this small group of individuals cannot be described in any way than heroic. They rushed into the building, confronting the terrorists and evacuating as many people as possible. 

Though official reports state that there were four gunmen – this is contested by eyewitnesses who say that there were at least eight. Official reports, including footage from the HBO documentary, show that two men entered through the front entrance of the mall and two from the roof of the mall, but, sources state that grenades and gunshots were coming from the basement as four terrorists were cornered in the Nakumatt supermarket by Harish, Haji and their group. 

Harish and his group were fortunate – as reported by the HBO documentary, 90 minutes after the attack had begun the Kenya security forces still had not gone into the mall. They were alone and yet managed to all survive their mission – though Corporal Nura Ali was shot, he survived. 

Nearly four hours after the terrorists struck, the police and army entered Westgate. Having worked alongside Kenya’s security forces, Harish says that he doesn’t blame them – “when there are bodies lying on the street, even thinking of going in is a mission” he explained.  Also, when considering the low salaries and modest support the Kenya Defence Forces and police force receive, he said that the alleged looting of the mall by some rogue elements in the army, which followed after the army had secured the shopping mall on the third and fourth day of the siege, was to be expected.  

Nevertheless, the time it took the forces to eventually get in was a matter of life and death for many and when they got in, it was too late for many. Some 67 people were documented as gunned down that day. 

Filling the healing gap

Events of the day are as vivid in Sadia Ahmed’s mind as it were just yesterday. A young presenter with a popular Kenyan radio station, Sadia had gone to cover a cooking competition which was taking place in a car park on the rooftop of the mall that Saturday. She remembers clearly the bloodied fingerprints that traced along a car next to where she was crouching, huddled into a corner of the car park with a group of people who had been participating and spectating the competition. 

“Help took way too long to come” said Sadia. She waited in that corner for two hours. That day Sadia, along with many other survivors and helpers saw atrocities that are unimaginable to most. 

She says that she has been healing in her own way, but for her, the inability of the defence forces to take control of the situation that day is what also continues to rattle her. “Before, you knew that the defence and polices force are not great, but they’re there - when something this bad happens you’d expect them to be able to take control. But they didn’t and it actually went in the opposite direction”. 

For Philip Ogola, the healing process is far from over. Having to watch young children die in his arms as they called for their parents, seeing the last breath of a friend and having to document body after body for records took its toll. 

Go away with positives

Following the attacks, groups such as Radio Africa and the Kenya Red Cross offered counselling sessions to various groups but there was no support offered from the authorities. Westgate continues to stand there, like a scar on the city, riddled with the bullets from a year ago. 

Sadia says that it should have been made into a memorial, yet the only memorials that were established were a tree-planting ceremony organised by Friends of Karura Association, the Kenya Forest Service and the Kenya Red Cross and a two-month long self-funded exhibition by Arjun Kohli at the national museum. 

Arjun is a journalist who covered the attacks the year before and felt compelled to commemorate the anniversary with “something reflective that would build a sense of community…and allow visitors to go away with something positive.”  His exhibition documents the tragic and heroic stories from victims, soldiers, doctors and journalists. 

Never the same again

One year on from the tragedy of Westgate the feeling of insecurity continues, perpetuated by the vacuum in concrete answers about the attacks, the clear failures of defence forces during the attacks and the absence of support following the assault. 

Fortunately, the heroic efforts and initiatives taken by Kenyans are able to offer some comfort as Kenya continues to heal. 


blog comments powered by Disqus