The Quiet Star of Westgate Mall

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A Muslim man risks his life to save others during the shooting at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. By Sahar Deshmukh.

An Ordinary Muslim Turns Hero_Aquila Style
Screen grabs from news footage. Source: NTV Kenya

Ever since 9/11 the world has changed for the worse. It’s disheartening when politically motivated or random terrorist attacks are linked to Muslims. Unfortunately, some groups perpetuate this media representation, such as militant group Al-Shahab, which claimed responsibility for the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall on September 21st this year. The four-day siege left 67 people dead and many others injured.

Amidst the horror emerged the story of a Muslim man named Abdul Haji, the son of a former Kenyan Security Minister, who aimed to save just his brother, but ended up saving “dozens of lives” that day with a pistol in his hand and a lot of courage from within.

According to his account of events as told to the BBC’s Will Ross, Abdul rushed to the Westgate Mall after his brother sent him an SMS reading: “I’m stuck at the Westgate. Seems like a terrorist attack. Pray for me.”[i] When he reached the mall, he could hear firing going on inside. Upon entering the parking lot of the mall, it was a scene of total chaos.

“We saw a lot of dead bodies – young children, elderly people, women – it was horrific. I’ve seen dead people before in road accidents and at funerals, but never seen so many people just lying down bleeding,” said Abdul when describing the scene to the BBC.

Unable to do anything for the dead, Abdul recounted that he, along with some other men, urged the Red Cross to bring in stretchers and to carry the bodies out. He then continued to walk through the mall with the others, identifying themselves to the many people hiding in several shops. He described seeing some people pretending to be dead, so fearful that they weren’t able to move – despite being called out to.

After securing the top floor, Abdul says that they heard firing when they reached the ground floor. There were plainclothes police officers with Abdul, carrying tear gas and protective gear, along with other civilians who were covering each other as they exchanged fire with the gunmen.

According to Abdul, the Red Cross informed them that 40 hostages were being held in a room at the Westgate management office. He remembers that on their way to this room, they noticed women hiding under a table. One of them was Katherine Walton, a 38-year-old American woman.

Abdul recounted that he and the other men managed to stay out of the shooters’ sight and came closer to the table where Katherine was hiding. They asked her to run toward them once they let out the tear gas, but she said she had three children whom she couldn’t carry all at once.

“Tell the eldest child to run towards us the moment we throw the tear gas,” Abdul reportedly told Katherine.

Abdul described how Katherine’s four-year-old daughter Portia managed to cooperate by scampering across to him as he stretched his arms out to her – a gripping moment that Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic captured.

“I don’t know how she knew to do it, but she did. She did what she was told and she went,” Katherine told the Telegraph.

Recalling that moment, Abdul said, “This little girl is a very brave girl”, adding that he was touched by Portia because she inspired him to keep on fighting during the siege. Despite the traumatic situation, she remained calm and managed to run towards men with guns.

Abdul continued to detail how he and the other men evacuated other victims to safety once Portia was rescued along with Katherine and her two other daughters aged 13 months and two years. They were later reunited with Katherine’s two sons who managed to escape the mall earlier. Abdul, for his part, later received an SMS from his brother, who had also managed to safely escape the attack.

What I find touching about Abdul is that although he risked his own life and saved many others in the process, he refused to be called a hero.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Abdul said, “I think I did what any Kenyan in my situation would have done to save lives, to save other humans regardless of their nationality, religion or creed.”[ii]

Even though mainstream media may continue implicitly linking terrorism to Islam, there are many like Abdul still out there who make the Muslim community proud and prove yet again that Islam doesn’t teach hatred nor does it encourage the mass killing of innocent people.


[i] ‘Abdul Haji: I went in to rescue my brother in Westgate’, BBC, 27 Sep 2013, available here
[ii] ‘Hero Abdul Haji speaks of Kenyan mall attack horror’, The Telegraph, 27 Sep 2013, available here

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