Margie Brand was at Westgate Mall in Nairobi to buy groceries at Nakumatt, the best-stocked store in the country. On this Saturday afternoon, she was accompanied by two colleagues and her 8-month-old son, Ashton. Just four days prior, the 39-year-old had arrived in Kenya to check up on the work of her Washington, DC-based non-profit.
A South African with shoulder-length blond hair and sunglasses perched on her head, she pushed a shopping cart that held Ashton, dressed in a striped onesie. It was nearing naptime and so the three hurried to grab groceries, worrying that the baby would get fussy after too long. Their shopping trip was on September 21, 2013, a day that would leave 61 people dead at the hands of four al-Shabaab gunmen in one of the deadliest terror attacks in Kenyan history.
Around 12:30 p.m., electricity in the mall flickered three times. Though it wasn’t directly connected to the events that would follow, the bursts of darkness were accompanied almost immediately by an explosion, then machine gun fire.
For the next few hours, Brand hid behind the meat deli counter, curled on her back, surrounded by crates and other cowering shoppers as four gunmen shot and killed as many people as they could in Westgate, where some 2,000 mall goers had been spending a leisurely day.
“Lying in that little ball you focus on surviving every second,” Brand recalls to The Daily Beast. “All your focusing on is getting through to the next second and keeping your baby quiet and trying to keep calm, thinking ‘As long as I wait until security forces to arrive I’ll be OK.’ I just have to try to keep alive until they get here.
After a while you start thinking, ‘Why is no one coming?’ I started thinking maybe the whole of Kenya was under attack...there must be a reason no one can get to us. Then you think, 'Actually no one’s coming at all.' You feel the most lonely and scared you’ve ever felt your whole life. I don’t even know how to describe it. It was to your core, it puts you into a different zone when I finally felt that deserted, as though there will be no one, I cannot get out of this place...it’s almost like you’re just waiting to die. I kept hearing a voice in the back of my mind saying, ‘Today is not your day, today is not your day.’ I could hear it pretty clearly, but I didn’t really believe it—it kind of did seem like that was my day.”
And then, a gunman was above her. They locked eyes. “He’s just a baby,” she whispered, clutching her son, and repeating it. “Lady with baby stand up,” one of the terrorists announced. Then, incredibly, he cocked his head and started making cooing sounds at the baby. “You almost saw a humanist as well as an absolute demonic side,” she says now. “A terrorist looking into the eyes of my child smiling and waving. Suddenly you realize it wasn’t someone who was totally different from us.”
Without further prompting, she walked calmly out of the supermarket, through the tear gas that clouded the entrance, and broke into a run. Video captures her sprinting from the mall into the crowd of rescue teams waiting outside.
Last week, nearly one year after her miraculous escape, Brand watched the attack unfold again, but from a very different vantage point.
In a reception room overlooking Bryant Park in HBO’s midtown Manhattan headquarters, the lights flash as warning for the audience to take their seats in the adjoining theater for the screening of a new documentary, Terror at the Mall, to begin.
Brand had a moment of panic as she was reminded of the way Westgate’s electricity flickered before the terror. “Nowadays you have to handle things,” she says. She had watched the movie nervously for the first time that afternoon, worried that it would spark memories she had buried.
On Monday, Terror at the Mall will air on HBO, providing the first look inside the siege on Westgate that included a dozen children and three pregnant women in the death toll, and laid to waste not only the city’s most upscale shopping mall, but the sense of security for citizens of Nairobi and people across the world who’d felt safe in their everyday routines.
The documentary is a haunting nightmare. Pulled from thousands of hours of clear, color security footage from more than a hundred cameras blanketing the mall, the film takes viewers inside the mall as the siege unfolds, showing each moment in a bird’s-eye view. The resulting effect feels like a first-hand experience of the terror that played out at Westgate—it will leave your mouth agape as you watch and won’t leave your thoughts for days after.
The footage begins unsuspectingly enough: A man pays his bill at one of the three swanky restaurants in the mall. Kids run through the wide corridors with their parents. Shoppers grab groceries from Nakumatt. Brand pushes her cart with Ashton in it alongside her coworkers (one of whom was later killed in the attack).
“Bang!” says Andrew Munyua, a boisterous Kenyan man who was at the entrance being patted down by a guard, when the first explosion shatters the routine afternoon. In the surveillance footage, shoppers freeze and then scatter. Andrew realizes that the guard who’d just been searching for him has been hit by a grenade. From that point on, the film follows a handful of survivors who are captured by security cameras as they narrate their experiences.
There’s Amber Prior, flanked by her two kids, ages 4 and 6. She provides one of the most spectacular pieces of footage when she emerges from hiding to ask the gunmen to save her children.
“I don’t know where it came from, but I decided probably this was my only chance and the only chance of my children, so I stood up,” she remembers in the film. “I said to him ‘My children are here, they’re alive, will you let them go?’”
The terrorists agree, allowing Prior, her children, and three other kids to leave together. She wheels an injured boy out in a shopping cart full of watermelons. Bizarrely, the armed men apologize to the young boy whose mother and sister they had killed, and give Prior’s children chocolate bars, asking for forgiveness. “They kept saying we’re not monsters, here have a chocolate,” Prior says.
There’s Katherine Walton, juggling five children, including a 13-month baby, who finds herself taking cover under a display table stand with a group of women for the entirety of the siege—almost directly in the crossfire—and watches Prior’s escape unfold.
“We heard voices...there was a woman with some children and she just walked out of Nakumatt and left,” Walton says in the film. “We thought maybe she’d lost her mind.”
Cameras show the gunmen roaming the mall, shooting and killing with impunity. As the opening rampage stretches into hours, a question arises: Where is help? Help, it turns out, is outside awaiting orders in a state of complete disarray. Unbelievably, the Kenyan security forces don’t enter the mall for hours, standing by as the massacre raged on within.
“Give us time to organize ourselves!” a soldier yells at a group of bystanders trying to breach the mall.
The first liberators of Westgate were not SWAT, nor uniformed police, nor military—they were plainclothes police and civilians who risked their lives heading straight into the carnage.
“If we have to die, we die,” says an airport worker who ran to the roof where dozens had been killed at a children’s cooking competition. He was one of seven men racing toward danger, including police, two armed civilians, and Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic, who shot amazing rapid-fire photography as he followed this ramshackle team into the mall.
In the film, even the terrorists seem surprised by the amount of time they are given to go about their massacre uninterrupted. After a first go through, they appear to be grasping for what to do next. Watching this incompetence is infuriating, and the view security cameras show from inside the mall is horrific. Many victims of Westgate bled to death before help arrived.
Three and a half hours after the terrorists arrived, the SWAT team finally enters the mall. Nine minutes before this belated mobilization, the terrorists killed their last civilian victim, a young mother. But their action just proved another confounding piece of this negligent puzzle. When soldiers arrive at Nakumatt, they fire at everything that moves, including three policemen. In the chaos, both army and the SWAT team pulls out of the mall and don’t return until hours later.
The cameras watch as the al-Shabaab gunman, ranging in age from 19 to 23, take refuge in a storeroom, praying and waiting for their last stand. Finally, the soldiers return, freeing the last surviving civilians in the mall, who have been hiding for eight hours. But the terrorists survive for two more days. Not until the army fires an explosive into their hideout and the mall burns down does the ordeal finally reach closure.
Director Dan Reed, a tall, bald-headed Brit, landed in Nairobi soon after the attack. He’d already made two other documentaries on urban terrorism—Terror in Mumbai and Terror in Moscow—and was certain he could track down the security footage he had seen bits of on CNN. Within a month, he had thousands of hours of film in his hands, acquired using methods he prefers not to share.
“Making it kind of broke my heart,” Reed says. The footage is so powerful, yet the security camera’s viewpoint is so indifferent, and he feared the combination of the two. “There’s something really horrific about watching a mechanical recording of such an event and that chilled me to the bones, really. That’s something that will stay with me for a long time.”
He spent the following months pinpointing characters he wanted to follow, tracking them from camera to camera to piece together their story and then tracking them in real life to hear their testimony.
It took him six long months to find Brand. He was captivated by footage of her escape through the hazy entryway of the supermarket, which was obscured by pepper spray. “A woman alone with an infant emerging from this supermarket with a massacre behind her, and this cloud of tear gas—it was an incredible moment which took you right into the pace of the situation. I thought, ‘I really must speak to this woman and I must know what she saw.’”
Reed found himself playing detective, piecing together the timeline of events and fates of those inside the mall, and sharing information with survivors and families of victims that no one had before. Many of them, Margie Brand included, came to rely on him for details of the attack and their attackers. “We ended up with a lot of information that none of the investigating authorities had reached,” he says.
Misinformation was rampant after the attack, so much so that many believed the terrorists had survived and escaped. There were rumors of western women committing jihad as “black widows,” and of more than a dozen gunmen being involved. Even a year later, the exact events of that day haven’t been made entirely clear.
“There was a sense the response had been inadequate and slow,” Reed says. With the complete camera record, he mapped out an indisputable timeline. “We’re able to say for sure what happened and I think that might be particularly embarrassing for the government because up until now no one’s been able to prove what happened.”
Instead of triggering Brand’s trauma, as she feared it would, she found that the film offered the first true depiction of what had happened that afternoon in Nairobi, a story that was muddled and meddled with by conflicting reports coming from media, government, and foreign intelligence agencies.
For Brand, getting these details while working on the film comprised a large part of her healing process. It wasn’t justice she was looking for, it was understanding, she says. “I think not having answers leaves more of an emptiness and discomfort than I’d ever imagined before and I think this really helped.”
Reed was relieved when, watching the screening last week, he felt uncomfortable during some scenes, and knew he hadn’t grown numb to witnessing violence. He thinks about his three children in the UK and the malls they go to, and feels vulnerable. “It makes you feel this could happen to me where I live.” That, he says, “is terror.”
Brand, who says she’ll continue to return to Nairobi, agrees. “This wasn’t about Kenya, this was about something that could happen anywhere, at any time” she says. “I was shopping on Saturday morning, it was a totally normal thing to do, and the world got shattered around me.”