Witnessing the Nairobi mall massacre

September 23, 2013

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

Nairobi, Kenya

By Goran Tomasevic

(Editor’s Note: Goran Tomasevic is a veteran war photographer, covering conflict for over 20 years in countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria. As Reuters chief photographer for East Africa, Goran is now based in Nairobi, Kenya. This is his story of the attack on the Westgate shopping center on September 21, 2013.)

I was at home when I heard from a friend about something happening, but we weren’t sure what it was. I went to the Westgate mall and saw some bodies lying in the car park and realized it was serious. I saw some police so I hid behind the cars to take cover and slowly got closer to the gate.

An injured child was being pushed in a supermarket trolley. The woman said to me, “Please, take this child”. But the police jumped in and helped her. I took some pictures and then saw a couple of plainclothes and regular police. I asked when they would be moving and they said they were going to try and enter the shopping mall from the top. I went with them.

In the parking lot there were a lot of dead bodies and a lot of injured people with blood everywhere. There were people hiding and screaming and asking for help. I tried to help but I couldn’t do much because the ambulance was arriving and I wasn’t sure exactly what to do.

I saw this younger guy who was hit by shrapnel. His leg was broken, but he wasn’t bleeding that heavily. I didn’t want to move him and make it worse. If I started helping, I could do something wrong. I am not a doctor. I just tried to calm him down. I said, “The medics are coming. You will be alright. You are okay.”

I entered the mall and followed the police searching room by room until we ended up on the ground floor where the supermarket is located.

A policeman got shot in the stomach. He asked me to take a picture of him screaming and asked me for help. I tried to help him but I guess he was in shock or something because when I helped him up he started firing his rifle into the floor. He almost shot me accidentally. Then he dropped the weapon.

Children were following their parents. I saw a mother carrying her child. They were hiding when plainclothes police who said they were good guys gave instructions on how to run.

I followed the police up and down through the mall, bodies were here and there. One of the policemen told me there were a lot of bodies in a shop near the entrance. I went there and took a couple of pictures.

There was one moment when the police and I were hiding behind a column in the mall, sort of a stand holding something up. It wasn’t part of the building. I knocked on it and it was made out of thin material. I said “Hey guys knock on this!” Everyone started to knock. They said “So, what?” I said “It’s not going to protect us.” So, I dived down and everyone followed.

A woman ran out from a shop with some children and I helped some of them to get out. I took one of their hands and helped them run together. There was an older lady and she couldn’t run. People were in panic. Some kids were running and kids run quite well so they didn’t need any help. All of them were in total shock; they didn’t know what was going on.

I helped the police with some of the evacuations but after some time they asked me to leave and I decided it was time to do that.

I was inside the mall for around 4-5 hours.

It wasn’t possible to get close to the mall the following day. Police dropped a tear gas canister on journalists. I was trying to think of how to get back into the mall but I don’t believe I could get in without being arrested as I’m carrying my 500mm lens. You have to feel the atmosphere, know when a good time is. If you miss the timing, you cannot go ahead. You have to feel it and react quickly.

The shooting was a complex situation. I guess my experience in conflict zones helps to recognize where potential threats are and what is going on.

I’ve seen a lot of different situations of people dying but I always say it’s my job to cover these stories. If I can help someone, I will. I always believe people should see how it is. Sometimes it’s terrible but still, they should know the reality.

(Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the name of the Nairobi shopping mall.)

19 comments

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I guess you have seen many of your fellow photojournalist skewered by the public for snapping photos and not helping so your story is half explaining how or why you were not able to help each situation. Great coverage from the front line of a tragic attack.

Posted by mauricio0595 | Report as abusive

Wow, it just never ceases to amaze me how much hatred there is in this world. Hatred on both sides of the fences. Hatred that can lead to such pointless violence. And I live in a country that propagates so much of this hatred and violence. How, how, how can we stop all this? How can religion be so frigging important?

Posted by otrcomm | Report as abusive

I cried after seeing the pictures! And I am a man who was told that boys don’t cry! But I just can’t contain myself when I see the utmost evil and injustice! The persons who did this are manipulated by other evil people who want control, power, and money. But they still had a choice. We all do! What a shock it will be when they in the end of their lives will see that “their” God (or rather the one and only God that all of us may be part of) will never ever accept this type of evil. They are doomed for ever! The world has to completely change so that no man or woman will ever think that they have the right or a cause to kill an innocent child, a pregnant woman, an honorable man. The utmost shame on these sinners and anyone who supports them. And peace, love and eternal remembrance to all those people whose lives were so tragically taken away! Love is eternal and you can never take that away!

Posted by Changenow | Report as abusive

Vivid pics from the mall.

Posted by CDPX071 | Report as abusive

Slightly concerned that Goran says he didn’t know how to administer first aid. Time for a refresher first aid course …

Posted by Gavafox | Report as abusive

Things should be done to our immigration laws to make sure, we do not get many people with ideas behind this event spreading them in the USA. Also it should be against the law for any organization spread a philosophy that says it should be spread by war or killing.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

I have read that the Kenya government has said some of the killer where American and Western. Which means our laws or enforcement of them are lacking in teeth to keep out people who would spread such philosophy and to bankrupt organization that do that.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

I am suprised by the comment “If I started helping, I could do something wrong. I am not a doctor.” Not only is mr. Tomasevic a veteran conflict photographer, but presumably all Reuters staff covering these things have attendended a hostile environment course with relevant first aid training?

Posted by FredrikN | Report as abusive

The photos are truly heartbreaking.

Posted by Goldy0107 | Report as abusive

Seriously, Reuters? What has this added to the story except some blood and gratuitous depictions of acute human suffering? There is no point except to feed people’s base curiosity, and to provide a platform for Mr Tomasevic to dole out CYA excuses as to why he was doing his job instead of acting like a compassionate human. I’m curious as to what editorial debates took place before this was published.

Posted by roxy_esco | Report as abusive

I would have put my camera down put EVERYTHING aside and done EVERYTHING I could to help the victims. I was not interested in pictures Only survivors. :(

Posted by dkahumbu | Report as abusive

Tomasevic is trying to justify snapping photos of those suffering, capturing the blood for the sake of ‘good’ photo journalism. As a journalist this sort of journalism continues to disgust me, when we use the suffering of others for our gain. Is it not enough that these people are dead, injured and traumatized enough, can you imagine being the daughter, mother, son, sister, brother or father of one of the dead or injured people you just photographed? You took away their dignity.

Posted by Lagipoiva | Report as abusive

Truly a brave photogrher who went into harms way with only a camera to protect himself…Well done Reaters for showing us the the real pictures and allowing us to see the the truth of story.

Posted by ChrisP47 | Report as abusive

What a tragic human being. I hope someone would have helped you if you had been injured, instead of making excuses while taking pictures of you dying.

Posted by Bigredh | Report as abusive

This is Not a religious War !! The individuals who committed these repulsive acts are Islamist fanatics with a desire to obtain Power, and institute Sharia law and the denigration of women.

This photographer was a Brave man doing a service for all so that we could better understand what happened. It is in poor taste to verbally assault his bringing a first person account to our attention, something lacking in the majority of threads I have seen.

And he Did assist several folks! Plz remember that in such carnage our ‘systems’ have a tendency to shut down to what we are witnessing and we react to stimuli…in retrospect he might have performed differently, perhaps not, imo…

Posted by Recon6 | Report as abusive

I applaud Goran Tomasevic. The role he plays in bringing us accounts of incidents such as this is a very important one. It is because people like him are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to cover stories like this taht we learn what is going on in the world. Bearing witness to history is very important work for all of us.

Posted by MELeaf | Report as abusive

i am upset cause noboby is making a fuss about what happened at the westgate mall. these attackers ar fanatics and dont know islam. they are not muslim for all i care. the prophet muhammad said very clearly that no women or child must be killed in jihad… for gods sake… this was not even jihad( holy war). this is not islam. these are not muslim this is pure barbarism. on behalf of muslims of south africa… we distance ourselves from these organisations.
may allah punish all those responsible

Posted by mahomedlimalia | Report as abusive

I can not understand the conflict the photographer must have had trying to document this atrocity and help people to get to safety as I have never been in such a situation.

I am greatful for this.

I find this Reuters Photography blog a very good source of honest news with unbiased and real commentary

I am also greatful for the honesty and shocking images, unfortunately this is the world we live in and it is down to each and every one of us to try and make it a better place.

Posted by scottsmithphoto | Report as abusive