Westgate attack survivors recount how they escaped from jaws of death

Manish Mashru- Husband to Rita Mashru- Raju Mashru- Brother to Manish with their triplets during the interview, the couple lost their daughter to the terror attack. PHOTO DAVID GICHURU/STANDARD

NAIROBI: Exactly two years ago today, Al Shabaab gunmen stormed Westgate Mall, killing 67 people and leaving many others with life-changing injuries.

Rachel Muraya was one of the lucky people who came out of the mall alive; but not unscathed.

She was still mourning the death of her husband who had died eight months earlier, only two weeks into their marriage, when the terrorists attacked Westgate.

Ms Muraya worked as a hairdresser at a salon on the second floor of the mall.

“I was on the rooftop parking located on the second level of the mall when the terrorists struck. I had gone to see off a friend when we first heard the gunfire. I thought they were thugs trying to rob the mall. It did not cross my mind that they were terrorists in the first instance,” says the 28-year-old.

Before she could comprehend what was going on, a grenade was hurled in her direction that came close to badly injuring her leg and toppling her over.

“I cannot remember how long I was lying there before help came. The Red Cross team rescued me and I was immediately rushed to the hospital. The doctors told me as soon as I arrived that my right leg would be amputated because it was badly damaged.”

She has had five surgeries on her right leg and there are possibilities she will be operated on in the future to remove shrapnel still stuck in her other leg.

“It took me a year to recover. Although I am back to work now, I sometimes experience some pain and the trauma is not all gone. I still get counselling but I am glad how far God has brought me,” she says.

She adds: “I will definitely miss wearing my high heels.”

Today, Muraya owns her own salon, thanks to the money that Kenyans contributed to survivors of the attack.

Irene Onyango bumped into gun-wielding terrorists when they stormed the mall.

The former employee of ArtCaffe was busy at work when she heard a loud bang at 11.30am.

“I thought it was the coffee machine so I checked it and realised it was okay. I decided to go outside and check what it was,” recounted Ms Onyango.

Her decision brought her face-to-face with the terrorists. One of them looked her directly in the face and said something in what she thought was Arabic. He then ordered her to run and then he started shooting. She ran and that saved her life.

The shooting intensified and as she was running, she heard a woman calling out for help. She had been shot and was in severe pain. Irene grabbed her and they both entered Mr. Price shop. They found other people hiding inside. Onyango tried to stop the woman’s wound from bleeding.

She said they did not know what was happening and most of them assumed it was a robbery that would last only a few minutes.

Onyango is still traumatised by the attack and vows she will never venture inside there again.

Pauline Wanjiku was also in the mall working at Mr Price shop. She heard gunshots and into a nearby office.

“I saw other people running in so I took the keys and locked the door and we all hid there. There were staff, customers and outsiders in that office and some were wounded,” she recalls.

They learnt through social media and messages from people outside that their attackers were terrorists.

“We stayed there for almost six hours. It was the worst experience in my life,” she said.

They were rescued the same day at around 6pm. “As we were being led out of the mall, we heard gunshots and started running back inside. The police kept telling us it was okay to walk out of the mall,” said Irene.

Irene also says she will never go back to Westgate. “It gives me goose bumps just thinking of going back there. I do not think I can or will.”

When the terrorists struck at Westagte Mall, Moses Ombati, the current North Eastern police boss, was the deputy police boss for Nairobi.

Ombati escaped death by an inch when one of the terrorists aimed his gun directly at him, only for it to jam, giving him a chance to escape.

“I hit him after we clashed face-to-face and his gun jammed. I fell down and my colleagues who were covering me shot the terrorist in the legs,” he said.

The terrorist succumbed to injuries shortly after being rushed to Aga Khan Hospital.

Aside from saving civilians during the four-day siege, Mr Ombati also saved his own colleagues, including one who was shot several times as he exchanged fire with the terrorists and also lost two of his fingers in the incident.

Two years later, Ombati says Westgate and other terror attacks have taught Kenyans a lot.

“We have lost so many people in these terror attacks; people who would have helped in building this country,” he said. “Kenyans have learnt something and people are now more vigilant and we have seen less incidents as a result.”