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FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, file photo, civilians who had been hiding inside during the gun battle manage to flee from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya after gunmen threw grenades and opened fire Saturday, killing at least 22 people in an attack targeting non-Muslims at the upscale mall. First-hand accounts of the chaotic first hours of the four-day siege of Kenya's posh Westgate Mall are beginning to emerge. First-hand accounts of the chaotic first hours of the four-day siege of Kenya's posh Westgate Mall are beginning to emerge. (AP Photo/Jonathan Kalan, File)
One day, many dead: The start of Kenya mall siege
First Published Sep 26 2013 10:03 pm • Last Updated Sep 26 2013 10:03 pm

NAIROBI, Kenya • It’s 1:30 on Saturday afternoon in the Westgate Mall. Rafia Khan is huddling in a crawl space of the Millionaires Casino with her cousin and eight other people as gunmen roam the building and shoot, again and again, into crowds of shoppers.

Now she is teaching those in hiding — perfect strangers — words that she hopes will keep them alive.

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The group had found the ceiling-level space as they fled gunfire and explosions.

While they are hiding, word spreads by mobile phone text messages that Islamic militants have taken control of the shopping mall that houses the casino. Word also spreads that the gunmen are allowing Muslims to leave — testing them by asking about their knowledge of Islam.

Khan and her cousin are the only Muslims among the small group. They decide to teach the others to recite the Shahada, the short Arabic-language creed that proclaims there is only one God and Muhammed is his prophet.

Over and over, Khan whispers the words slowly and phonetically, as if to a child: "La il-a-ha il-Al-lah wa Mu-ham-mad ru-soul Al-lah."

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Saturdays are crowded at the Westgate Mall, Nairobi’s most elite retail destination and a crossroads of the global economy. Rich foreign businessmen go there, as do wealthy Kenyans. There are shopping diplomats, and aid workers watching movies. They stroll the Nakumatt grocery store and have sandwiches at Java House. They buy sunglasses, silk shirts and phones.

Much of Kenya lives on less than a couple of dollars a day, but these poor also come to Westgate. They work inside, carrying boxes at the supermarket, sweeping the marble floors. Or they just come to watch.

"Poor. Rich. High class. All of them are there," says Khan, whose husband is a wealthy businessman.


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On this Saturday, though, they would watch children weep and watch them die. They would leave injured friends behind as they fled the attackers. They would be shot, and hit by shrapnel from grenades. At least 67 would die in what became a four-day siege by extremists from al-Shabab, the Somalia-based, Muslim militant group.

This is what happened in those first hours.

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The Westgate Mall entrance, about 12:36 p.m.:

Kenyan authorities believe there are as few as six gunmen, although the number remains unclear. The first team, wearing bulletproof vests, storms Westgate’s front entrance, throwing grenades and firing assault rifles as they run. They are clearly well-trained.

Few people inside the mall think of terrorism when they hear the first explosion, and many think it’s an electrical box giving way under Nairobi’s unreliable power grid. But as one blast gives way to another and the clatter of machine-gun fire is heard, thousands of people know they need to move. But where?

Outside at the entrance, Ben Mulwa, a community organizer driving to the mall for lunch, jumps from his car and takes shelter in a shallow flowerbed. He also thinks it’s a bank robbery. An unarmed mall security guard takes cover next to him.

Then he sees four attackers in the driveway, racing in his direction. All carry rifles.

"I realized this is bigger trouble than I actually thought," he says.

Mulwa hears a bang, and the guard next to him is shot through the head. He never moves again.

"That’s when I saw the second gunmen actually pointing his rifle at me," he says later. Three shots ring out. In his mind, he sees his 1-year-old daughter. "I asked God: Why would you want my daughter to go through this?"

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