Kenyan Abdul Haji helps Portia Walton escape during the siege at the Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 21. (Reuters)
Sept. 27: Faced with a long afternoon trapped in the house with her five children last Saturday, Katherine Walton decided on a quick excursion — a trip to Nairobi’s popular Westgate Mall.
On arriving together, her two teenage boys briefly joined Katherine Walton and her three daughters including four-year-old Portia.
Four hours later, the family lay pinned to the ground opposite the Nakumatt supermarket where they did their weekly shopping as gunmen hurled grenades and sprayed bullets just yards from them.
“We were just going to meet my two older boys in the supermarket when we heard an explosion,” said Katherine Walton, a 38-year-old IT worker from North Carolina who moved to Kenya with her husband Philip and their children two years ago.
“I grabbed the girls and started running. A woman pulled us behind a promotional table opposite. I could see the bullets hitting above the shops and hear the screaming all around us.”
She remembers only fragments of the hours that followed which she spent huddled under the table, but, according to Philip Walton, 39, she saw enough of the attackers to be able to describe several of them in detail afterwards. “She heard them talking to people, telling them to stand up followed by gunshots,” he recalled. “The thing that’s troubling her now is that she can’t forget the smell of the gunpowder.”
During their ordeal, the couple’s three daughters, aged four, two and 13 months, were shielded and calmed by an injured Kenyan woman and two Indian women who hid with them.
“They were so still and quiet,” Katherine Walton said. “My baby was screaming when there was shooting but between that, she just slept. In one lull in the fighting, my two-year-old and the baby were playing together with my phone. I couldn’t understand how they could be acting like everything was fine.”
Yards away was a man with a pistol who was shooting at a heavily armed young jihadi in a bandanna who was taunting him to come closer.
That man was Abdul Haji, the son of a former security minister in the Kenyan government, who had rushed to the mall after getting a text message from his brother who was trapped inside. “We saw a lot of dead people. Very young people, children, old ladies, you cannot imagine,” Haji told the Kenyan television station NTV.
Haji said his father taught him how to use a gun to protect their cattle from bandits when he was growing up.
Last Saturday, he used these skills to provide cover for the Kenyan Red Cross workers and, over a period of three hours, help evacuate some of the 1,000 people who escaped the mall in the initial stages of the siege that would last three days and leave at least 72 people dead.
As he stood with a fellow rescuer crouched outside the supermarket, Haji said he noticed the women hiding under the table. “Just a few minutes ago we were exchanging fire with the terrorists and these people were right in the middle of it, in the crossfire. We regrouped and we started to strategise on how to get them out of there,” he said.
He asked the women to move towards him but they indicated they had children with them and could not all run together. Haji said he asked Katherin Walton if one of the older children could be encouraged to run towards him.
Katherine Walton’s oldest daughter Portia emerged and ran across the deserted corridor. The moment was captured by a Reuters photographer, Goran Tomasevic, in a dramatic image that was beamed around the world. Philip Walton, who during the siege was 14,484km away on a business trip to the US, said he reacted in disbelief when he first saw the photograph of his daughter striking out alone across the mall. “She’s not normally the kind of girl that would run to a stranger, particularly one with a gun,” he said.
His wife added: “I don’t know how she knew to do it but she did. She did what she was told and she went.”
Seeing the little girl running towards him gave Haji fresh impetus to continue helping people out. “This little girl is a very brave girl,” he said. “Amid all this chaos around her, she remained calm, she wasn’t crying and she actually managed to run towards men who were holding guns. I was really touched by this and I thought if such a girl can be so brave ... it gave us all courage.”
One by one, the Walton family emerged and ran with Haji and other rescuers until they reached the police lines outside the mall.
There, Katherine Walton was reunited with her teenage boys who had been trapped with another family in the basement of the mall but also had escaped. “As we went out, it was so quiet and we started to get upset because we realised we were almost there,” Katherine Walton said.
“They soothed us, told us we were OK, we were safe and to stay calm. They did a wonderful job.”
Looking at the photograph now, Katherine Walton says she can see the fear etched on her daughter’s face. “I was worried about family in America seeing it because we haven’t really shared the whole story with them yet,” she said. “For me, I know the story behind it and that it ends well. I think I owe Haji a hug or two.”
Since he has been identified, many Kenyans have hailed Haji as a hero but he disagrees. “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,” he said.