Hours after the gunfire began, hours in which she bled on to her children as they cowered beneath her on the supermarket floor, Pauline came face-to-face with the gunmen who had brought terror to Nairobi’s Westgate mall.
All afternoon, the attackers had shown scant mercy for shoppers and restaurant-goers. Hunting in packs, they moved from store to store on Saturday, sometimes killing indiscriminately, at other times sparing those who could prove they were Muslims and executing those who could not. Now, the gunmen sought to justify themselves. “We are not monsters,” they told Pauline, a French advertising producer. “The Muslim faith is not a bad one.” Twice they demanded her forgiveness and when she acquiesced, they gave Mars bars to her two children, Emily, 6, and Eliot, 4, and let them go.
But if this was a brief glimpse of conscience on the part of the terrorists, it was not to last. Within minutes, the shooting had begun again.
The Westgate shopping mall, perhaps Nairobi’s plushest, is at its busiest on Saturdays, as the attackers no doubt knew. The restaurants were full, the 80-odd stores on three floors crowded and the Nakumatt supermarket thronged with working parents like Pauline, shopping for the weekend.
The attackers struck just before noon. There were as many as 18, at least one of them a woman, according to witnesses. Well-armed, their planning meticulous, they divided into groups in order to maximise their chances of killing as many people as possible.
Everyone in the mall heard the initial shots, but it was customers on the terrace of Art Caffe, a French-style brasserie, who saw them first.
“My father was sitting down for coffee with his brother when they heard gunfire coming from the street,” said a Kenyan Sikh, who rushed to the mall and later joined volunteers taking out the dead. “They immediately hit the ground and then heard three loud explosions. The people at the next table were all shot and died.”
After three-quarters of an hour, the Sikh brothers and their father managed to escape through a delivery entrance to the restaurants. Other diners were not so lucky, running into the main section of the mall only to find themselves confronted by more gunmen who had forced their way through the shopping centre’s principal entrance.
Unarmed guards, there to keep order and frisk customers entering the mall, were the first targets, according to one witness, Ben Mutua. “They shot into the security booths and at the backs of the guards as they tried to run away.”
As one group of attackers headed into the mall, two others made their way to car parks in the basement and on the roof. The gunmen managed to drive at least one vehicle into one of the car parks. A police source said the car was loaded with extra ammunition.
Inside the mall, desperate shoppers sought whatever shelter they could, hiding behind pillars and even in ventilation shafts as the shots rang round them.
In the Nakumatt supermarket, Pauline – who asked that her surname not be disclosed for fear of reprisals – had briefly left her children at the checkout while she ran back to get milk.
“Suddenly everyone started running and there were shots outside,” she said yesterday from her hospital bed. “People started screaming and running into Nakumatt. I ran against the flow and grabbed the two kids and tried to get to the back door of the supermarket.”
But at the rear of the store there were shots too, leaving Pauline and other shoppers with no option but to find shelter inside. With 20 other people, they hid under a cold meat counter. Placing her children hard against a refrigeration unit, Pauline lay on top of them and urged them to be quiet.
Pauline and her children had been hiding for an hour and a half when a gunman walked around the meat counter and started shooting.
A bullet passed through her thigh and out of one of her buttocks. Several others were killed before the attacker retreated, leaving wounded and unwounded alike screaming in pain and terror.
Elsewhere in the mall, the gunmen had begun to take hostages. Those who were able to show Muslim names on their identity cards were spared. Others were executed, including a Hindu man who failed to identify the name of the Prophet Mohammed’s mother.
Another two hours passed before the attackers returned to the supermarket, announcing that any children still inside would be allowed to leave. Pauline knew she was taking a gamble, and stood up. Initially they were unwilling to let her go with her children – who were unscathed – until they discovered she was French. “He said we only want to kill Kenyans and Americans,” she said. “He then told me I had to change my religion to Islam and said ‘do you forgive us? do you forgive us?’. Naturally I was going to say whatever they wanted and they let us go. I said ‘yes, you’re right, Muslims are not bad people’.
“I managed to take two other children with me. One boy of about 12, who was shot in the foot, refused to leave his mother who was dead but I screamed at him and managed to get him into a shopping trolley and wheel him out.”
Pauline’s escape was miraculous. Elsewhere in the mall, other nationalities were not spared. A French mother and daughter were “executed” in one of the car parks, according to the French government.
As night fell, the killing had become more sporadic. Those still inside the mall had either hidden too well or had been taken hostage as the terrorists began to prepare for a final showdown. Throughout the night, shoppers remained in their hiding places, a few managing to flee to safety yesterday. Among them was a Kenyan woman who had hidden under shopping trolleys at the supermarket for 16 hours.
Official figures report 68 fatalities, but police sources inside the mall told The Independent that many bodies were yet to be recovered.