Life in lockdown near Kenya’s besieged mall

BY Jason Kane  September 23, 2013 at 6:54 PM EDT

Smoke billows from the roof of the four-story Westgate shopping mall where a number of hostages have been kept for three days in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by Ahmet Erkan Yigitsozlu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

The gunfire “sounded as if it were just over the garden wall.”

Mia Collis lives so close to the Westgate shopping center that she first thought the gunmen had abandoned the mall down the street and made their way toward her home. Then the explosions started — distinctly from the direction of the mall — like “bombing or shelling that lasted about 20 minutes.” Two days after militants tied to the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabab rampaged through one of Nairobi’s fanciest shopping centers, killing more than 60 and injuring upwards of 170, Collis says each new round of gunfire is a reminder of a new reality. The place she sometimes visited almost daily to catch a movie, grab some sushi or pick up groceries has been transformed into an “urban war environment.”

Kenyan officials announced they believed all remaining hostages had been freed by late Monday, but Collis said she can’t stop thinking of people like the shop manager named Patrick. She used to see him all the time in the supermarket.

“I just have no idea if he’s alive,” she said. “There are some amazingly friendly faces that serve you — the shopkeepers, the bank managers and supermarket managers that you see on a weekly, if not daily, basis. I have no idea whether they’re in there, if they’re safe, or if they’ve been killed.”

The NewsHour spoke to Collis by telephone Monday afternoon. Listen to excerpts or read the full transcript below:

NEWSHOUR: Mia Collis, thank you so much for joining us. First, tell us a little bit about yourself and where you are right now.

MIA COLLIS: I live in Westlands, about 500 meters from the Westgate mall. I’m a photographer, I’m 32 years old and I’ve lived here in Kenya my whole life.

NEWSHOUR: So you live very close to the violence. What’s your history with this mall — did you spend much time there?

COLLIS: Well it’s a new mall, but it’s been an integral part of my life and my family’s life for the last four or five years. It’s very central to where we all live in this area of the city. It’s one of the biggest malls in this area and has the most amount to offer. My gran, auntie, brother, mother and father frequent the mall on a daily basis. I would say at least one of our family would be there on a daily basis.

NEWSHOUR: What’s in the mall? Why was this such an attractive place for so many different kinds of people?

There’s a number of really good little cafes and excellent restaurants. Most of them are run by an Israeli chain. There’s a great cafe called ArtCaffe, a gourmet burger joint, a tapas bar, a great sushi bar up on the top floor, a cinema that we’ll go to regularly, an enormous supermarket, a chemist, a couple of banks. And a casino. My little nephew goes and plays on the playground on the top floor. So there’s pretty much everything. Everything you need is in that mall. And that’s why we use it.

NEWSHOUR: When did you first realize something was happening?

COLLIS: I’m on a press loop with text messages, and in the space of a couple of minutes, I got about eight text messages from the press, from friends, from people in the UN — all hearing the same news at the same time, saying, “An attack on the Westgate Center is happening. Don’t go anywhere near.”

My immediate panic was to make sure none of my family were in there. So it was a little bit of a stressful time because I couldn’t get ahold of any of them and I had this dreadful feeling that at least one of them was going to be in there. And thank goodness, none of them were. That was an incredible stroke of luck.

NEWSHOUR: Was anyone else you know in the mall at the time?

COLLIS: Yes. I know a girl who is a filmmaker here in Nairobi and she was shot in the leg. She had her two children with her. She was taken to hospital and operated on and she’s OK. There was another woman who is good friends with several friends of mine. She was six months pregnant and was shot dead on the roof.

NEWSHOUR: And you’ve been able to hear some of what’s been happening from your apartment?

COLLIS: Oh yes. It sounded as if it were just over the garden wall. I live very close, and this morning I was woken up to a slew of gunfire, which I literally thought was on the property that I live in — it was that loud. And then what sounded like bombing or shelling, which lasted about 20 minutes. It was very, very scary. And there’s been about three or four helicopters and a little plane which has been circling for about 36 hours.

NEWSHOUR: Were you able to hear anything when it first started on Saturday?

COLLIS: No, because it was midday and for a couple of hours they were in there. I can’t confirm how long they were in there before the police arrived but it seemed like a long time that these guys were shooting. But I didn’t hear anything in my home during that time. It’s just seemed to be since the Army’s gone in. I have a feeling they’re shooting outside or on the rooftop, and that’s why I can hear it from my house now. When the terrorists were in there, it’s all enclosed, so I think it’s difficult to actually hear shooting inside itself.

NEWSHOUR: Have you been in lockdown in your apartment?

COLLIS: Yes, generally the area that I live in has been locked down. Most of the roads have been cleared for ambulances. The Army is very prevalent around this area now. And they have blocked off the major roads that are leading into the Westgate. So I would say if I walk maybe a couple of hundred meters, then I hit the Army. And they’re formulating a circle where you have to walk an enormous space around the building so that you can get where the press are based or the medical center.

NEWSHOUR: What’s the scene like where people are gathering?

COLLIS: Well there was another gun battle and the explosions. As I said, there was the gun battle that woke me up this morning and then the rest of the morning was quite silent. And then around 1 p.m., there was another serious bombardment and a lot of gunfire, and again, it sounded as if we were right next to it. And there is now an enormous plume of black smoke that came out of that and has been going most of the afternoon.

I then went down to where the press are, which is about 300 meters from the building itself, and it was probably about 4:30, and there was another slew of bullets and another attack with lots of gunfire. We all had to hit the deck — hit the floor.

NEWSHOUR: There was gunfire coming toward you?

COLLIS: No, it wasn’t. It was just so loud. And we were just close enough and it’s such an unpredictable situation right now that nobody quite knows what is happening — whether they’re shooting outside, whether they’re shooting inside. Where the media are based, we don’t have a complete visual on the building itself. There’s a building in front and they’re really, really keeping the media out of there. So you can’t quite know what’s happening. You just hear this serious gunfire and no one knows whether they’re going to run out onto the street or whether they’re shooting from the top of the building. That’s why people hit the deck. But as far as I’m aware, there were no bullets coming toward us. It was just very loud and very close.

NEWSHOUR: What’s the mood in Nairobi like right now?

COLLIS: I think Kenyans in general are totally shocked. It’s almost a sense of complete shock. There is terror and there’s certainly a lot of fear because the situation is not under control. The Kenyan Army are, I’m sure, doing an incredible job. But it seems it’s still going on. And if it’s in control, it should have been done and dusted, and it’s not. It’s a continuing problem. And so with that, I think people are very nervous. And certainly a lot of very upset and sad people. There are thousands and thousands of people who would frequent that mall and really would use it as their hub. And so to be hearing these horrendous stories of things people have witnessed within it and what’s happened to people is just awful. Just awful.

NEWSHOUR: Is it hard to reconcile those stories with a place that you’ve come to know so well?

COLLIS: Yes, it is. There’s a wonderful manager in the supermarket — a guy called Patrick. And I have no idea if he’s alive. And there are some amazingly friendly faces that serve you and are shopkeepers, and bank managers and supermarket managers that you see on a weekly — if not daily — basis. And for me, it’s worrying about those guys. I have no idea whether they’re in there, if they’re safe or if they’ve been killed.

NEWSHOUR: As a Kenyan, what does it mean that this upscale mall — that had really become a status symbol of Kenya’s economy — was attacked like this?

COLLIS: Well it’s very, very scary and it’s kind of uprooting. This is supposedly a safer part of the city and security was pretty good there in comparison to other places. You’d have your car bomb-checked, you would be bomb-checked yourself — you’d be frisked down and your handbag would be looked through. And so you kind of feel it’s safe. And suddenly for this major, major part of our lives and part of the city to be in such a terrible situation right now, indeed, it’s exceptionally scary. And I don’t think anybody knows what to think or what to do right now. We’re all in a bit of shock.

NEWSHOUR: And do you think this will change things in Kenya?

COLLIS: I do. I don’t know how but I do think it will change things. It’s literally an urban war environment right now — in a country that’s never had war.

NEWSHOUR: Do you see any silver lining here?

COLLIS: I feel that it’s really, really brought together Kenyans — who have been unbelievable. The blood banks have been overflowing. There have been thousands of people donating their blood. There have been amazing volunteers, incredible community coming together just to get through the situation. And I always think in times like this, it’s uplifting to see this side come out of such a tragedy.


Photographer Mia Collis worked with NewsHour reporter-producer Jason Kane recently on a story about HIV and TB prevention among drug users in Tanzania. See her photos in the NewsHour feature, The Street of Blood and Smoke.