News / Africa

Kenya Mall Attack: Reporter's Notebook

Local and foreign television crews line up behind a police cordon at the end of a street leading to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Local and foreign television crews line up behind a police cordon at the end of a street leading to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Hannah McNeish
Coming to relieve my colleague, camped near a shopping mall in Kenya’s capital Nairobi on Sunday evening, 30 hours after attackers started a siege, I felt like it could be a wasted trip or I’d be in bed within hours after the last hostages had been released.
 
An entire night awake, listening for any traces of gunfire and trying to find out if anyone else had escaped from the mall bore no fruit.  Around 5 a.m., the only sound permeating the eerie silence was birds singing.
 
But as dawn broke, the cheerful chirping gave way to heavy gunfire, as around a dozen journalists readying to finish the “graveyard shift” had to lie down for 15 minutes to escape possible flying shrapnel.
 
VOA's Hanna McNeish reporting for VOA from the siege of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, September 24, 2013VOA's Hanna McNeish reporting for VOA from the siege of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, September 24, 2013
x
VOA's Hanna McNeish reporting for VOA from the siege of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, September 24, 2013
VOA's Hanna McNeish reporting for VOA from the siege of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, September 24, 2013
Kept about 200 meters from the mall by a heavy security presence, it was impossible to tell where the firing was coming from, as the volleys seemed to reverberate around the tall buildings obscuring our view.
 
After such a long wait and a siege that had already left around 60 people dead by then -- some sprayed with bullets as they tried to escape and others executed -- we all hoped that this was the final push.
 
The Kenyan military had been promising the siege was in the “final stages” and they were “in control” of most of the building the night before, although soldiers had admitted that no one wanted to go in after dark for fear of snipers.
 
But as the gunshots died down, and as the crouching journalists scrambled to inform the world, three large blasts went off.
 
Surrounded by military and police but with no one saying anything, journalists could not help but speculate whether gunmen purportedly representing Somali militant group al-Shabab were lobbing grenades, or perhaps had blown up the mall and themselves with it.
 
Throughout the day, sporadic gunfire broke out, peppered by explosions, as journalists shook their heads and lamented the government misinformation that has marred this crisis, and the lack of access that has prevented proper reporting.
 
As a turf war between press and military over where journalists could stand and a ban on any photos or even pre-positioned TV cameras raised tensions among two strung-out and exhausted sides trying to do their jobs, shout of “clear, clear!” came from the gate and press ran and scrambled for cover.
 
Apparently security forces had spotted potential attackers possibly holding explosives -- just one example of the tense but murky situation facing Kenya right now as an unknown number of attackers sow terror in the heart of a city.
 
On Monday afternoon, dark plumes of smoke started billowing out of the shopping mall, as sirens screeched around us.  The fire painted a dark stain across the sky and grey mist floated our way as thoughts went to possible surviving shoppers hiding for two days in the dark.
 
Attempts to find a higher vantage point were fruitless, as construction site owners or security guards turned journalists away from buildings or tried to charge extortionate amounts.
 
On the streets, everything was frenetic, from the taxi-van “matatus” careering around corners, or pumped up youths shouting and pacing towards the mall, to the trigger-happy police tear-gassing crowds -- and the journalists standing next to them.
 
As night fell and the explosions came as frequently as the official claims that all was under control, many journalists slumped off to bed -- anxious to miss out on the end of this but unable to fight fatigue any longer.
 
But on Tuesday morning, far from the statements on Twitter claiming the siege was over, gunfire and explosions again greeted me near the mall.
 
Sniffer dogs gave one the sense that security forces could be clearing the mall of booby-traps, but the arrival of fresh portable toilets countered police assurances that it would all be over within hours.
 
After so many government claims -- most relayed through Twitter and countered by al-Shabab's changing accounts that are routinely shut down -- the siege is over three days old.
 
Around 60 people are still missing and the same number killed, with an unknown number of assailants and victims still alive in the mall.
 
What is clear is that only when this crisis is truly over will we know even half of the story.  What it means for Kenya, long considered a regional and international hub for expatriates and wealthy Africans who frequented Westgate shopping mall, also remains to be seen.
 
For sure, these attackers and attackers have grabbed the world’s attention and front-page headlines, casting themselves in a bad action movie that everyone is forced to watch.
 
And for many Kenyans -- the hundreds still waiting word on missing loved ones -- the horrible feeling is not knowing when this tragedy will end.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs