Robert Mburu was an hour-and-a-half away from Nairobi, Kenya, when he heard that Westgate Mall was under attack.
Thousands of Kenyans were inside, many of whom he probably knew. Westgate isn’t far from where he grew up and was a mall he frequented regularly.
But at the time, those thousands didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that his little sister, Dorcas Mwangi, had been in the mall, where she went almost daily, shopping for groceries when she heard the first gunshots.
Mburu jumped in his car and drove at breakneck speeds back to the city. Mburu has U.S. and Kenyan citizenship and splits his time between Nairobi and Atlanta. He is a contractor and when the mall was attacked, he was at a project site well outside of the city.
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During the drive, he stayed in constant communication with his sister through text messages.
“Please hide … don’t text if it will jeopardize your self … what is the situation and where are you hiding?” he texted.
“Nakumatt upstairs,” she replied, describing the supermarket inside the mall where she was hiding.
Dorcas Mwangi was back in her hometown on summer holiday after her first year of university in Britain. She had just paid for her groceries and was walking out of the supermarket when she heard gunfire nearby. She ran back inside the store and up the stairs to the second floor of the market.
She found a pile of suitcases to hide inside, along with another woman who was nearby. She could hear some of the gunmen talking and endless gunfire. Eerily, the mall’s soundtrack continued, Bruno Mars playing in the background.
“We were both Christian, and so we prayed together,” Dorcas Mwangi said later of the woman she hid with for nearly four hours.
Mburu heard from the network of text messages and tweets circling the city that the attackers were separating Muslims from non-Muslims. They were letting Muslims go and in some cases, killing everyone else. He forwarded this text to his sister:
“Just heard following from a friend: They are asking everyone to recite the Shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith) and if they don’t know it are being shot dead. Send it on to everyone in case anyone you know is in there and needs it …”
When he arrived at Westgate, he tore through police barricades and ran up the front steps of the mall trying to get to his sister. Police stopped him from getting past the front door.
Inside, he could hear explosions and endless rounds of ammunition being fired. Bodies already littered the parking lot.
“She’s only 20 years old you know? And she’s all by herself … I felt so helpless,” said Mburu, during a joint interview with his sister last Monday.
Knowing that immediate medical attention often means the difference between life and death, he tried to get the attention of medical teams that could help his sister as soon as she got out.
“Tell the police to come inside Nakumatt,” she texted.
With every text, he knew she was still alive.
Through texts and calls with friends, police and bystanders, he found out that police were inside Nakumatt evacuating as many people as they could.
Mburu stood on the steps watching civilians come out of the mall. He waited with his father, who had also arrived at the mall. Mburu was also close friends with Mbugua Mwangi, the nephew of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was trapped inside with his fiancée, Rosemary Wahito.
Mburu waited with his father and Mbugua Mwangi’s mother for news from inside.
Tragically, they would later find out that both Mbugua Mwangi (who is no relation to Dorcas Mwangi) and Wahito had been killed.
Escorted by police, victims exited the mall covered in blood from gunshot wounds or splattered with the blood of other victims.
“People would get outside of the doors and they would just collapse onto the steps when they realized they had made it outside,” said Mburu.
“I had no idea what kind of state she was going to be in when she came out,” he said of his sister.
Eventually, Mburu and his father saw his sister, Dorcas Mwangi, make it outside of the doors alive. Miraculously, she was uninjured.
They didn’t leave once they knew Mwangi was safe. Their friend Mbugua Mwangi was still inside, and countless other Kenyans with family and friends in the mall were also waiting in agony to find out if their loved ones would make it out alive.
“Everyone waited. Just because your people had gotten out safely didn’t mean you were going to leave. Their people were still inside,” Mburu said.
He was struck by the solidarity of everyone present. The owners of an Indian restaurant nearby opened their doors and offered food and water to everyone. Policemen and civilians entered the building without regard for their safety to rescue those still inside.
In a city too often divided by class and race, those divisions, at the least for the moment, dissolved.
“The woman (Dorcas) was hiding with probably (was) from Kibera [a slum in Nairobi],” said Mburu. “But there they were together, for that moment in the same situation.”
Abby Higgins, a journalist from Seattle based in Nairobi has previously written about the Kenyan slums for The Seattle Times.