Witness Account |

An Attack on All That Is 'Normal’ in Nairobi

Upon arriving at the mall, I realized that what is so shockingly different about the Nairobi attack is its target: The people streaming out are being shot at for no reason besides belonging to the middle class.

Tom Kirkwood
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Tom Kirkwood

NAIROBI – Running towards the sound of gunfire with my friend Goran Tomasevic felt familiar; we had worked together in Jerusalem during the start of the Intifada so gunfire and explosions were nothing new; what was different yesterday was that this was Nairobi, my home for the past six years and a place that has grown increasingly affluent and "normal" to anyone used to a middle-class life in any developing country.

And I think that is what was also most shocking on arriving at the mall itself. Already a trickle of people were emerging, either running or being carried. These were not people belonging to one particular "group" (Israelis or Palestinians) when I was in Jerusalem, not black Africans caught in a civil conflict or unfortunate western adventurers or tourists caught up in a hostage crisis, these were "ordinary Nairobians" – the same people I had seen on a very normal Saturday morning just hours before when I was shopping in the Nakumat supermarket store, in the same mall. Everything had just seemed so very "normal."

And I think that is what has galvanized the country and it is what has caught the attention of the world, this is a normal middle class under attack, its a lifestyle, a form of behavior, that so many of us, so many Kenyans, so many Africans, so many in the developing world, aspire to.

So the people being brought out were regular shoppers and those working in the mall, from Kenyans who might later have been attending the Safaricom 7's rugby, to members of the Asian community, to UN workers and foreign diplomats as well as waiters, shop assistants, workers. And, if you work at Westgate mall, you are probably a worker with a good future.

And while that was somehow more shocking than your regular news event in Africa, it also made the whole event more unbelievable, more surreal.

When we first arrived (Goran made straight for the main entrance, which armed police had already secured), there was very little in the way of support. Without a camera, there was little point for me to go inside, so I hung outside, getting some images on my mobile and trying to find out what was going on.

It was so different to Jerusalem (or even South Africa, where I have a home) in that there were no ambulances, no flashing lights, no fast response vehicles at the scene, for ages. When injured victims were being brought out or managed to walk out under their own steam, there was nowhere to go; they simply collapsed right outside the building, believing themselves to be safe.

But the shooting and loud bangs continued and they could be fired on easily from the building, so it was important to get them further away.

Which was when a woman came out limping, shot in the foot, and pretty much collapsed in front of me.

She was going into shock and was too close to the source of the shooting, so after holding her hand for a while, I simply lifted her up and went to find an ambulance. There weren't any but out of nowhere an Asian Kenyan drove up, opened the back door and after we had loaded several wounded, including a man whose flesh was hanging off his arm, got into the car, screamed off in the direction of the hospital, driving alone and with no assistance, in his rush to get the injured to hospital. Maybe he was a doctor, maybe he was a "normal" Nairobian, I'll probably never know.

Tom Kirkwood is a Nairobi-based journalist and media entrepreneur. He worked for Reuters Television in Hong Kong, China, Jerusalem, South Africa and Nairobi, from 1993 to 2011 and was senior producer in Jerusalem, running the Reuters TV operation, when the Second Intifada broke out. He has since started a media company in Nairobi and runs the Africa Today video feed for Turkish Ihlas New Agency (IHA).

Journalist Tom Kirkwood rescuing a woman injured in a shootout between armed men and the police at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, September 21, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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