Nairobi Hero: When Westgate Went Down, Civilian Grabbed His Gun and Rescued People


What were the odds that two of the most talented combat photographers working today would be on the scene of the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi? One was the New York Times' Tyler Hicks, who was at a nearby mall when the Al-Shabaab attack broke out, and whose wife Nichole Sobecki, also a photojournalist, ran home to get their helmets and Kevlar vests before they both plunged into the mall to cover the unfolding tragedy. The other, Goran Tomašević, has covered Serbia, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Syria; recently he settled in Nairobi as Reuters' chief photographer for East Africa.

The above image was one of the countless haunting images captured that day by Tomašević, who was at home when he heard about a commotion at the mall and headed there.

The man in the checked shirt shows up in several of Goran's photos from his 4-5 hours that he was able to accompany security forces inside the mall. Many of the plainclothes men in the day's photos were police, but Abdul Haji, 39, is a real estate executive and son of a former security official.

As reported by ABC News:

As the gunmen began their rampage in Nairobi's upscale Westgate Mall early Saturday afternoon, Haji got a short text from his brother who was at the mall. "I'm stuck at the Westgate. It's probably a terrorist attack. Pray for me." Haji's immediate thought was that militants had gone to assassinate his brother.

Until just a few weeks ago, his brother was an undercover counterterrorism official battling organizations like al Shabab, the al Qaeda-linked group that has claimed responsibility for the four-day siege that left almost 70 people dead. But a local media outlet had recently revealed Haji's brother's identity and the family - including their father, a former defense minister - had started receiving death threats.

Haji says he grew up around guns and lately had been carrying his pistol with him. "I left where I was and I headed straight to the Westgate," Haji told ABC News. "Luckily on that particular day I had actually carried my licensed gun with me so I didn't have to go back home to waste time and pick up a gun, I went straight to the mall."

Haji realized that the attack was bigger than an attack on his brother, and jumped in with security officials to go into the mall and save people. He provided cover for Red Cross workers and systematically searched through the stores for three harrowing hours. One of the men he was fighting with was shot in the stomach. One of the terrorists taunted Haji in Swahili: "As if it was a joke to him. This whole thing was a joke to him."

Then comes the story behind the photo:

Nearby, a woman was trapped behind a table. Haji yelled at her to run to them but the woman, 39 year-old Katherine Walker, said she couldn't because she had three young children with her. Haji told her to send the eldest, 4-year-old Portia, who ran across. "[A] very brave girl," said Haji affectionately. "She's running toward a man with a gun and she was very brave."

"I don't know how she knew to do it but she did," Katherine Walker later told The Telegraph newspaper, "she did what she was told and she went."

Walker and another woman followed close behind with the other two children who then re-united outside with the family's two teenage sons who had been shopping elsewhere in the mall. "I was worried about family in America seeing [the photo] because we haven't really shared the whole story with them yet," Walker told the newspaper. "For me, I know the story behind it and that it ends well. I think I owe Mr. Haji a hug or two."

Haji told the Telegraph that his father taught him to use a gun to protect their cattle from bandits when he was growing up.

Even after receiving a text saying that his brother had escaped, Haji kept rescuing others.


The death toll in the wicked attack is currently at 72, but the Kenyan Red Cross says 61 people are still missing as security officials carefully comb through rubble for fear that the terrorists planted bombs within.