Documentary “Terror at the Mall” marks first anniversary of Westgate Mall seige

15 Sep 2014

On September 21, 2013, Al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-linked Somali militant Islamist group, attacked Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in neighboring Kenya. The siege lasted 49 hours, leaving 71 dead and hundreds wounded. Told using hours of previously unseen CCTV video, extensive frames taken by Reuters Photographer Goran Tomasevic and testimony from survivors and rescuers,Terror at the Mall” recalls the horror of the attack, as well as the courage and resilience of ordinary citizens in the face of mass murder. Marking the first anniversary, the harrowing documentary debuts on HBO in the United States on Monday, September 15 (9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT) , on BBC2 in the United Kingdom on Wednesday, September 24 (9:00pm-10:00pm GMT) and on CNN on Friday, September 26, at 9 p.m (9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT).

“Westgate was one place where you meet people of different cultures, different tribes, different religions, different everything. I think that was the most special thing,” says survivor Jasmine Postwalla. Chaos reigned in the early moments of the siege, with frightened shoppers running for their lives. Harveen Sihra, a 15-year-old girl who was shot in the thigh, stomach and foot, recalls the gunman’s words, “The only thing he said was that we are here to kill. You killed our people in Somalia. We normally don’t kill women and children but you kill ours in Somalia and so we are here to take revenge.”

Forty-five minutes after the attack began, the Kenyan security forces remained outside trying to decide how to proceed. A handful of plainclothes police and civilians decided to act, with Goran Tomasevic in tow.

“What angered me the most was the fact that they (the gun men) were Muslims, and they were purporting to do whatever they were doing in the name of Islam,” says civilian Abdul Haji, who joined the rescue effort with only a registered handgun. The gun men released a few hostages who professed the Islamic faith, but many Muslims, like popular Kenyan radio host Ruhila Adatia-Sood, who was seven months pregnant, were killed.

Women carrying children run for safety as armed police hunt gunmen who went on a shooting spree in Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi

Three and a half hours after the first shots were fired, a police SWAT team finally entered the mall. By then the massacre was over and many of the wounded had succumbed to their injuries. Confused and lacking a comprehensive plan, the Kenyan army forces and the SWAT team mistakenly fired at each other, leaving one police officer dead. Meanwhile, the gun men relaxed at the back of Nakumatt’s furniture storeroom, praying and waiting to be attacked by Kenyan forces.

The last group of civilians were rescued more than eight hours after the attack began. The ensuing standoff had lasted 40 more hours, during which five soldiers were killed. Two days after the attack began, the army launched a high explosive shell into Nakumatt. All four gun men were killed, and parts of Westgate Mall burned to the ground. Westgate Mall remains closed today, with no plans to reopen.

The film was made by Dan Reed, a UK-born documentary producer and director whose HBO credits include 2009’s Emmy®-nominated “Terror in Mumbai,” which won the BAFTA TV Award in the Best Current Affairs category, and 2003’s BAFTA-nominated “Terror in Moscow.” His other credits include the Peabody Award winner and BAFTA nominee “The Valley” (1998).

Read Goran’s account of his experience that day

Watch an interview with Goran about his experience covering 20 years of conflict.