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‘My mission was to get people out of the mall or die trying’

Saturday September 28 2013

Harish Patel during the interview at Laico Regency on September 27 2013. He helped save lives during the Saturday Westgate Mall attack. Photo/PHOEBE OKALL

Harish Patel during the interview at Laico Regency on September 27 2013. He helped save lives during the Saturday Westgate Mall attack. Photo/PHOEBE OKALL 

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Harish Patel has seen many cadavers in his life. Accident victims mangled by metal and tarmac. Gunshot victims surprised by the high velocity of lead. Bodies gnawed away by disease.

Harish has also seen at least one famous body – that of 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, environmentalist Wangari Mathaai, which he helped cremate two years ago this month.

But nothing prepared Harish for the sight he encountered at Westgate mall last Saturday.

Harish had been driving to his house in Parklands when he received a call informing him of gunshots at Westgate. He was less than a minute away so he immediately put his car in reverse, turned around and sped to the mall.

Harish is not an undertaker. He is a jack-of-all-trades. By day he is an operations manager at an aviation company in Nairobi. But his other life is much more dramatic.

A member of Krishna Squad, a Parklands vigilante group that describes itself as a self-help organisation, Harish can be found handing out food donations to children in Nairobi’s slums or volunteering at the Hindu crematorium in Kariakor.

Now he was just about to become a hero and a lifesaver.

Arriving at the mall, Harish could hear the pop! pop! pop! of small arms fire.

“This must be a robbery,” he thought to himself as he got out of his car. His hand went to his waist and he felt the cold steel of his Taurus 0.75mm pistol pressed reassuringly against his skin.

Picking an extra clip of ammo, he climbed out of the car and headed to the mall entrance. One of the first people he saw was a dazed-looking man who appeared to be of Somali origin.

He would later turn out to be Abdul Haji, who had also arrived at the mall after hearing that his elder brother was trapped inside by the gunfire.

A woman dressed in a hijab emerged from the basement. She was carrying an infant less than a year old against her chest, trying to keep the child away from the gunshot wound on her shoulder.

“There are people in there,” the woman said faintly. “These people are not criminals. They have come to kill people, and they are here to stay.”

Leaving behind some people to rescue the injured and recover bodies from the basement, Harish, Abdul and a few policemen who had now joined them headed up the ramp to the top of the mall.

The pop! pop! of gunfire was now occasionally replaced by the angry rumble of what sounded like a machine gun.

It soon became clear that this was no ordinary robbery.

As they walked up the ramp, they could see a security guard sprawled outside his cubicle. He had been shot in the head. Another man lay crouched nearby, his limp fingers a permanent bookmark in the Bible he had been reading when he was called to meet his creator.

The rooftop was hell. Many children who had been attending a cooking competition had been prematurely sent to heaven. A pregnant woman was among the dead. Leaving a handful of policemen and volunteers to carry away the injured, the dead and the dying from the rooftop, Harish and his team re-entered the mall.

They rescued people stranded and hiding in every nook and cranny until they got to the ground floor where the attackers had ensconced themselves inside the Nakumatt supermarket.

Harish could see one of the attackers firing at them from the entrance to Nakumatt. He had a white bandana inscribed with Arabic script. They were concentrating on this gunman when suddenly the angry rumble of a machine gun roared inside the mall.

The policeman next to Harish collapsed. Part of his stomach had been blown away by high calibre bullets fired by a gunman who had been lurking on the floor, unseen by the rescue team.

Using covering fire, they dragged the injured policeman away. Then they lobbed teargas at the attackers and forced them back into Nakumatt, buying valuable time to rescue more people hiding inside shops.

But Harish says this presented its own complications. Many of those who had locked themselves in various shops were playing dead and they refused to open the doors until they recognised a familiar voice, or were threatened with abandonment.

Many were traumatised by the mayhem.

Harish walked up to a woman, took her hand, and started guiding her to safety. After a few steps, she suddenly turned to him and whacked him across the face.

“What are you doing in my house?” she asked, and refused to move an inch until four soldiers held her and forcibly dragged her to safety. The moment she got outside of the mall, she turned to the soldiers and asked: “Where is my car?”

Another elderly white woman had been shopping in Nakumatt. As people used the tear-gas enforced lull of the retreating gunmen to flee, she emerged holding two plastic bags full of groceries. She walked calmly and majestically towards the exit, as if oblivious to the crowds, the noise and the danger.

When a couple of soldiers tried to relieve her of the groceries, she would have none of it. “I do not have any food in my house,” she said, before handing one of the bags to a soldier, who she mistook for a supermarket assistant, and ordered him to carry it to her car.

By the end of the day, Harish and the ad-hoc group of rescuers had saved perhaps hundreds of lives. They had arrived at the scene before the specialist security units and had bravely battled the gunmen and bought time for people to be saved.

More than 60 people were killed and hundreds injured in the attack, for which the Somali militant group al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility.

By 6 pm on September 21, the Kenyan specialist forces had taken over the operation, but Harish would stay on until 3.30 am when he finally went home to reassure his panicked family. After a shower, a cup of tea, and a change of clothes, he returned to the mall and stayed with the forces until Monday morning.

Harish, the 43-year-old father of twin 15-year-old daughters and a 10-year-old son, says he had acted out of humanitarian considerations.

“This is my country. These are my people,” he told the Sunday Nation. “At that point it did not matter whether they were Asian, Africans, white or Kenyan; you are in our country, and we have to look after you.”

Harish says he is not a hero and does not expect any medal or reward for his action. But he evoked the history of his adopted country – born in India, he came to Kenya when he was 3 – to explain his courage and that of his colleagues.

“There were heroes who fought for this country at Independence,” he said. “This was our moment to fight back.”

These men realised, soon after entering the mall that their pistols and a lone AK-47 rifle were no match for the sophisticated weapons and grenades the attackers were using.

But they still walked into the line of fire and put their bodies on the line to save as many people as they could.

“Our mission was to get them or die trying. We were ready to die,” Harish said. “We weren’t trying to be heroes; we were only trying to save lives. I feel proud that I saved lives.”

The injured policeman is expected to make full recovery. The other members of Harish’s team are back at their regular jobs.

but a friendship between the men was forged that Saturday afternoon in Westgate, during their baptism of gunfire.

Unlike Abdul who has been weeping in his sleep since the attack, Harish has struggled to sleep, catching a few hours of dreamless sleep here and there.

“I have seen many bodies and I have done many cremations,” Harish said. “But this was a shock and a disaster.”

He plans to take some days off work and find a quiet place to seek closure and inner peace.

Families of those killed in Westgate will be trying to find their own closure and inner peace over the coming months. For the survivors, many only got out alive because of the courage and bravery of this gang of men armed with a few light arms and one bulletproof vest.

Among Harish’s many pieces of jewellery (bling-bling) is a ring with the head of a lion roaring. It will always be a reminder of the lion-hearted foray into Westgate and the lives that were saved and touched.