Rory Peck Awards 2014 News Finalist: Nichole Sobecki

Kenya: Westgate Mall documents one of Africa's most chilling attacks

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The Rory Peck Awards celebrate the dangerous and invaluable work of freelancers around the world. This year's event will be hosted on November 19 at the BFI Southbank. To find out more click here.

Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, with its designer shops and restaurants, stood as a symbol of Kenya’s striving, newly affluent middle class.

On September 21, 2013, it became the scene of one of the most chilling attacks in East Africa’s history, claiming the lives of at least 69 people, and shaking Kenya’s image as a rising African nation. Saturday afternoon shoppers – men, women and children - were wounded or shot dead by gunmen linked to Islamist Al-Shabaab insurgents in neighbouring Somalia. Growing undercurrents of militant extremism within the country were brought irrevocably to the surface. 

Living just minutes from the scene of the attack, Nichole Sobecki was the only video journalist inside the mall during the first few hours. The material that she shot, and then filed, for Agence France-Presse TV, was broadcast by more than 60 television channels around the world and, to date, remains AFPTV's most widely used clips.

From Nichole Sobecki:

“I was at home in Nairobi when I heard from a friend that there was an attack happening at Westgate Mall. Given Nairobi’s crime-ridden reputation the first rumors were of a robbery, but after hearing that gunman were inside the shopping center I grabbed my flack jacket, helmet and camera and drove down there. 

The first thing I saw were people streaming away from the mall, many grasping their neighbors for support; fear and shock etched on their faces. As I got closer, I saw the injured being transported to safety in shopping carts, or carried away from the mall in the arms of strangers. Private cars were being used to take people to nearby hospitals.

I joined a group of journalists and paramedics who had gathered near Westgate's main entrance.  Gunfire rang out from the mall where it was thought hundreds still remained trapped.  It was difficult to get a clear idea of the situation but I saw that ambulances were evacuating victims from the upper parking garage. I made the decision to try and get in, ducking low as I followed a uniformed man up a ramp and into the building.

I quickly linked up with a small group of armed civilians and plain-clothed police who were trying to find and rescue those remaining inside the mall. I began filming.  I could see down to the lower floors - bloodied bodies lay on the ground, Saturday shoppers and workers whose lives had been brutally cut short. Clearing the way through service entrances, we made it to a sushi restaurant where a young waitress and two men had hidden inside an air vent during the attack.



Eventually military units arrived. As they cleared the cinema, I saw soldiers crouched low beneath a poster of Matt Damon's latest action film in a bizarre juxtaposition of reality and fiction. News of the attack was broadcasting live from flatscreen TVs in a nearby toy store.

I have covered conflict before in Libya, Afghanistan and Somalia, but to see these scenes of violence in a familiar shopping centre just minutes from my home was surreal.  The usual sounds of lively conversation and bustling commerce had been replaced by an eerie silence and occasional bursts of gunfire, mixed with the cheesy pop songs that were still playing over the mall's sound system.

Eventually we reached the ground floor, where security forces were exchanging fire with the gunmen at the entrance to Nakumatt Supermarket.  As the military moved into the store I was forcibly escorted out through Westgate's main entrance past the prone bodies of the attack’s first victims.

The Westgate assault lasted days, but its reverberations continue to be felt, from attacks along the country’s coast to indiscriminate crackdowns on Kenya’s Somali community. I’m committed to following this story as it continues to evolve, from the senseless violence of that day to a redefining of the country’s approach to militant extremism and terrorism, and the striving for an elusive but vital peace in Somalia."