How We Survived Terror at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall

What it was like at the Westgate mall, from two of those who survived.

Soldiers at Westgate during the attack

Soldiers at Westgate during the attack

Kenya is one of those places where everybody knows everybody — and each one of us seems to have friends or relatives caught up in the Westgate shopping mall terrorist attack. My friends Simon and Amanda Belcher were on their way to lunch at the mall before catching a film at the cinema. They had parked their car on the top floor and walked past a marquee where a children’s ‘super chef’ cookery competition was about to start when gunfire erupted inside. Simon at first thought ‘firecrackers’. Then they heard shots from the ramp up to the car park. Walking towards them were two slim young men carrying AK-47s with their faces swathed in Arab scarves.

The Belchers ducked down and hid under parked cars, from where they could see what was unfolding. An African nanny and a small Asian boy joined Simon under a Land Rover. Two men were under the next vehicle, where Amanda crawled. Dozens of people, mostly women and children, screamed and ran to a corner, clambering over each other and cowering. The gunmen approached them and — standing feet away from the Belchers — one announced in Somali-accented but good English: ‘Bismillah al rahman al rahim. We have come to kill you Christians and Kenyans because you have been killing our women and children in Somalia. Any Muslims can go.’

‘I’m a Muslim!’ shouted one man with children. They were allowed to leave. Then the gunmen opened fire, using single shots and short bursts, taking their time, executing people one by one.

A man and a woman tried to run past one attacker. Simon recalls, ‘He shot them. Bam! Bam! They went down. That AK has a horrific noise. You hear the thud of bullets into flesh.’ They lobbed a grenade at the cowering crowd and there were more screams. Simon was spattered with shrapnel and a piece of it is still lodged in his liver. The crowd was now a pile of bodies and whimpering children. Amanda slaps her shoulder to conjure the sound of more bullets hitting home.

All this time the terrorists were standing so close to the Belchers that Amanda could hear them breathing between volleys. The one closest to Simon wore brown cowboy boots and jeans. Suddenly he crouched down and Simon found himself looking into the man’s eyes. ‘They weren’t crazed eyes. There was nothing in them. Cold. I thought, “Are you my killer? Are you my death?” The terrorist stood up again, then lay back down on his back, rolled over and shot me. I let out this groan. I could immediately feel the blood flowing. I twitched and pretended to be dead so he wouldn’t think I needed another shot. The only time I felt scared was when I looked into that guy’s eyes. After that I felt, what will be will be.’

The bullet hit Simon in the abdomen, went clean through his body and then into his right arm and came out in a messy exit wound.

After their shooting spree, the terrorists sauntered off inside the mall to look for more people to kill. This was evidently their floor. Blood puddled around Simon, soaking the nanny and the little boy, who remained silent. Another boy lay near Amanda with a bullet in his leg and next to him was a woman with her arm half blown off. They could hear the wounded groaning, children crying, a phone kept ringing, dogs were barking nearby — and there was the background whoosh of air-conditioning vents which brought screams up from the floors below. With his ear to the concrete, Simon could hear gunshots and muffled explosions. ‘We thought there was a firefight between the good guys and the bad guys. But there were no sirens. No helicopters. And we realised there were no good guys. Just bad guys.’

After 30 minutes the two gunmen walked back out into the car park and there was another big explosion — probably a gas cylinder from the cooking competition. Survivors wailed and shouted. Amanda thought, ‘I wonder if being shot is as painful as childbirth.’ She thought of their children, Sebastian and Phoebe, who are at school in South Africa. She prayed that either she or her husband would survive for the children’s sake. The Belchers are not religious but they both prayed, hard. Simon says, ‘I looked over at Amanda and mouthed the words “I love you.” I thought the last thing I say better be good.’ Amanda thought about Anne Frank in hiding. She thought about Syria — ‘about what people have to go through’.

The two gunmen walked in and out of the building three or four times, hunting for people to kill. ‘We realised this was not going away. They were very well prepared and knew exactly what they were doing. And we thought nobody was going to come and get us.’ Amanda had put her mobile on silent but from the beginning had been texting Tom, a mutual friend. ‘Help we’re hostages at Westgate — Si shot… we need security many shot the men are still here… more shooting just heard grenade too scared to talk…’ The texting went on for an hour and 20 minutes, during which no police arrived. Tom called an ambulance, asked where Simon was hit and what was going on — but it was not until after two o’clock that an Asian Kenyan with a pistol appeared and the Belchers heard him say, ‘It’s OK — run now.’

Simon rolled out from under the Land Rover but could not stand. ‘Leave him,’ said the security man. ‘No,’ said Amanda, who for the first time was able to try to help her husband with a cloth for a tourniquet on his arm. An African man in plain clothes now appeared with an AK-47, looking nervous. ‘Are you with us?’ asked the Asian man. ‘Yes,’ said the African. A photojournalist in a helmet and flak jacket strode up and took pictures of the woman near Amanda who had her arm half shot off. The journalist did not help the woman, and when he saw the Belchers he turned round to snap photos of them. Amanda shouted ‘Fuck off!’ — and he did.

A group of survivors now ran down the ramp with the two security men, but suddenly there were more explosions and gunfire. Amanda and Simon, caught in the open, lay next to each other and pretended to be dead. After some more minutes, helicopters appeared overhead and three Red Cross ambulances zoomed up the ramp. Amanda waved. Simon, who was shivering and going into shock, was stretchered into the back of one vehicle, where he was put next to another man called Boniface with a severe leg wound. The ambulance driver then took off down the ramp ‘like Niki Lauda. But he had to keep reversing and going forwards, I think to avoid bodies.’ At the Aga Khan Hospital A&E, Simon was taken into triage. Scores of other injured survivors were coming in, one of them a boy of nine saying ‘I lost my mummy, I lost my mummy, I lost my mummy.’ This boy also lost his 14-year-old sister.

Today Simon has a tube coming out of his abdomen draining bloody fluid into a flask. His bandaged right arm is stiff and he is unable to move his fingers much, but the terrorist’s bullet did not break bones or sever arteries or veins. Amanda sits close to him, feeding him fruit. On the phone to their children in South Africa, their boy Sebastian, 18, said, ‘Mama — if you’ve still got the bullet can you please keep it.’ There is no AK round, of course, because it fragmented as it tore four holes through Simon’s body. Their daughter Phoebe asked Amanda to send a photo of her father — but the parents agreed for now that this was not a good idea.

Both Simon and Amanda stress to me repeatedly that they are proud to be Kenyans. Their origins are British, but Simon’s family arrived here in 1908. ‘Everybody has been so good to us. We are Kenyans, whether we’re Hindus, Christians or Muslims. And we are not blaming Muslims.’ After what they’ve been through, I find it interesting that Simon bears no grudges. Together they run a successful safari company, Royal African Safaris, and they hope to be back at work ahead of the Christmas season. ‘Tourism will take a hit of course — but it will be back.’

The Belchers are putting on a brave face but they are still fragile. What they saw was horrific. They realise that the terrorist attack at the Westgate was not the first and it will probably not be the last outrage of its kind in Kenya. ‘You can’t live in a state of heightened anxiety all the time. You go about your business.’

– Aidan Hartley is The Spectator’s ‘Wild life’ columnist, and the author of  The Zanzibar Chest.