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Trauma: the story of Charlene Waiganjo and the Westgate Mall attack- Part 1

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Posted: July 03, 2020

You don’t have to be caught in a terrorist attack to suffer trauma; it can be caused by divorce, the death of a loved one, an injury or illness, moving to a new location or many other things. In this three-part series, we tell the story of Charlene Waigango who was pregnant and trapped in Westgate for several hours during the terror attack, suffered severe trauma for years and found a way to beat it. Here is the first part of her story:

Charlene, thank you for taking time with us today. We hope your story will encourage others to seek help for their traumas. Tell us where you were on the morning of the 21st of September 2013.

I was on the veranda of Art Caffe. There was a lot of confusion when the attack started. A lot of people assumed that it was the bank being robbed in the mall. So people were not really reacting the way they should have until the terrorists came into the Art Caffe – only then did people realize that it was not a robbery. My mentor and a good friend of mine were at a table next to us and they were killed; shot dead. I was six months pregnant with my first child and had a large stomach and was not able to move as fast as others. I ran into the Art Caffe, tripped and fell and lost my shoes. I tried to hide behind the counter and I saw a lot of sparks and I didn’t know what they were. Then I realized they were the bullets ricocheting off the stainless steel counters and that I was actually being targeted. So, I ran through the kitchen to the outside and the main road was about 6 meters away but I couldn’t get there because there was an active shooter still on the veranda of Art Caffe.

So I ran into car park in the basement. I was separated from my friend by then and was with a small group of about 15 others also fleeing from Art Caffe. There were many more people in the basement, many of whom were hiding under cars. That seemed like a good idea so I tried on my back, sideways and many other ways but I just couldn’t fit because of my pregnancy.

In the basement was when we realized that this really wasn’t a bank robbery because shooters were walking down the ramp and executing people in their cars. I remember the cars were rolling backwards because the drivers had been shot. Your mind does not understand what you are seeing. But then in the corner I saw an askari that motioned to people to come because there was a service stairwell. It was a huge relief because once we were in the stairway we locked the door and started climbing up to the roof.

How many of you were there at this point?

About 70. We moved slowly. People didn’t understand what was going on. Everyone was frantically calling loved ones or people they were with in the mall.

It all intensified when we got to the roof and couldn’t leave because there was an active shooter there. So we went down and tried to exit on the 2nd floor and couldn’t because of shooting. We became trapped. And the more people realized we were trapped in the stairwell, the more it made us panicky.

We could hear not just machine gun fire but also the vibration in the stairwell of hand grenades going off. There was a lot of activity in the Nakumatt so it was frightening for those who were near the first floor.

One of the most difficult thing to do at this time was to get everyone to keep quiet. Because we realized that if they found us, they could easily just throw a grenade through one of the doors to the stairwell and it would be very effective. I remember going through in my mind whether I would survive a grenade attack better if I was next to the wall or next to the stairs. It was chaotic.

Then two things happened in the stairwell. The electricity went off and it was dark so everyone turned on the flashlights of their phones which caused panic. Some people were saying that phones must be on silent and all lights must be off so they don’t find us. But people wanted to see and wanted to make calls. Some people threatened to take the phones from others if they didn’t turn them off – some got very angry and even started fighting (physically).

Then confirmation came that this was Al-Shabaab and an eerie silence came over everyone; it was just so surreal. This is something we have read about and we’ve always known could happen and now it is real. And people felt that the outcome was going to be quite bleak.

Shortly after this news, another thing happened that I will never forget. It became very hard to breathe. We were in a confined space and we were using up the oxygen so we realized we were going to have to make a run for it. It was now getting very hot and people were starting to sweat. We had two people with us who were shot that were in danger of bleeding out. The people that were closest to them had managed to apply tourniquets but they desperately needed to get out. We felt like it was a damned if we do and damned if we don’t type of situation.

And at this stage a very interesting thing happened to me. I became very very tired; I knew I didn’t have the ability to keep on running or moving. My body was literally packing up. Probably because of the pregnancy, shock, lack of oxygen, and being on high alert and tense for 2-3 hours. My body just gave in.

A guy from Nakumatt was with us in the stairwell and he told us if we make it through the Nakumatt to the warehouse, we could get out. But this was a huge problem because we were on the opposite side of the warehouse and we would literally have to go the whole length of the Nakumatt to reach there. But the group decided that we had to move.

At this point I had given up and I remember sending my husband and all my family a message. And I was very peaceful at this time- an acceptance came over me that this was the end of my life. And I told the people I cannot go on. But there were two men there that refused and they carried me and my big stomach. I don’t know how they did it (each carried one arm and one leg) and they ran with me the length of the Nakumatt to the warehouse.

The running was also bad. I remember very vividly people on the floor that had already been shot yelling out to our group- ‘help me, don’t leave me behind, take me with you’. And it was very hard because we were running and didn’t know where the shooters were and we couldn’t stop and help them because we were running for our lives. It’s very difficult because afterwards, you think back on these moments and it brings a lot of hard questions later on in life.

We made it to the warehouse and the men put me on the biggest bale of Mumius sugar I have ever seen and there we sat. Everyone was thrilled that we had made it to the warehouse and it was this surreal moment of relief.

But inside the warehouse there was an elevator and suddenly we were worried that the shooters could come in through the elevator. So everyone started to scramble to push things in front of the elevator. We didn’t wait long- about 15 minutes and then it was decided that we had to leave again and run to the main road.

So, we went out back to where the trucks stop, the same place where we started hours earlier. But it was now late- 3 in the afternoon or 3:30. We were hiding behind the trucks because there was a lot of shooting going on and these guys were carrying me because I still couldn’t run.

As we got to the main road, literally in my face was a reporter saying ‘can I interview you?’ I don’t know if it’s what he was asking me or that he had this big camera pointing at my face and I didn’t know what it was- a gun or something … so I took a swing at him and I almost punched the guy out with the little strength that I had left.

And then the men that were carrying me put me down on the tarmac and after a few minutes my feet started burning like fire and that is the point I realized I had no shoes and had lost them in Art Caffe when the whole thing started. My adrenalin had kept me pain free and I hadn’t even realized I didn’t have shoes. And I had been running through glass and all sorts of other things and never even noticed. I didn’t have any cuts; I was unscathed unlike many others.

The two men who pulled you out- did you know them then or now?

No

Would you like to know who they were?

Yes I would

Do you believe your whole stairwell group of 70 got out?

Yes, I believe they all got out.

Do you know any of them?

No

You had this incredibly intimate few hours with a lot of strangers. Do you think you would recognize any of them today?

No, I would not.

We didn’t really have time to talk to people. Though, in the stairwell people were very comforting. At one point I completely broke down and started crying about the baby and so many people at that point touched me and encouraged me and were really compassionate. But we never knew each other.

I somehow managed to keep my phone through the whole thing and a friend of mine provided me a lot of support by phone- a calming voice telling me everything will be alright… people will come and rescue you… it’s ok… how are you feeling… keep breathing… keep low. I was never able to speak to my husband but was comforted by his texts.

Outside the mall, an Indian woman came and gave me the flipflops she was wearing. She had me sit down and asked if she could call anyone for me. I gave her my husband’s number and when she called she realized that she knew him because his name came up on her phone. He ran from the Oshwal and had to run a long round-about 2 blocks to get to me. The ambulances were for more severely injured people so he convinced a security car to take me to the Aga Khan.

What an amazing story. But while it was the end of the siege, it was just the beginning of your years-long struggle to come to terms with what has happened to you.  Next week, we will talk about how you coped (or more accurately, how you didn’t cope) with the trauma. Thank you very much for sharing.

Before we sign off, we want to close today’s story by letting you know that the friend that Charlene was meeting at Art Caffe that day also survived. She ran from the veranda, back through the Art Caffe and into the mall. She ended up in the Mr. Price Home store that used to be next to Art Caffe on the ground floor and holed up there until evening when she was rescued by the Red Cross.

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