So you’ve just popped down to the supermarket for the weekly shop, toddlers in tow, when the grenades start to fly, the air lights up with tracer bullets and you realise to your horror that unless you find a suitable hiding place in a matter of seconds these are the last moments you’ll spend with your kids on earth.
This was the awful crisis that faced Amber Prior and her children, who were among the numerous innocents caught up in the al-Shabaab suicide attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last year. Their tale was told in the BBC2 documentary Terror at the Mall, and I make no apologies for reviewing it late because it is surely one of the most gripping and important pieces of television any of us are likely to see this year.
What made it so remarkable is that it’s the first major terrorist atrocity to have been caught in detail on camera from the beginning almost to the very end. Yes of course, parts of 9/11 were televised too. But we only saw the view from outside. The Westgate mall attack, on the other hand, owing to the nature of its location, was captured from numerous different angles on the closed-circuit TV cameras dotted all over the interior. As various eye witnesses recalled what had happened, we were shown the footage with an arrow helpfully pointing out who was who.
It began with a scene we can all identify with: shoppers wandering distractedly up and down the aisles, probably thinking about tonight’s supper and whether there’s anything they left off the list; shoppers peering into the windows of various mall retail outlets; shoppers rewarding themselves with a breather in sundry pleasant outdoor cafés.
Then suddenly all hell breaks loose in one of the cafés: people leaping headlong through the air; people diving; people crawling, some of them very clearly injured by the blast of the first grenades — among them a beautiful South Korean woman called Moon Hee Kang, who seconds earlier had been enjoying a hamburger in the Kenyan sun with her British husband Niall.
Meanwhile, in the supermarket, quotidian normality turns in an instant to desperate panic. Everyone’s running — they’ve all heard the explosions and the gunfire — but where to go? The only obvious escape route is back through the entrance, where the gunmen are. And there’s nowhere to hide in the aisles because it’s all open plan. Behind one of the counters, maybe? The meat counter? But if they spot you there you’ll be trapped and …too late: they’re spraying the supermarket and all around you people are going down, with an awful, unforgettable deep twhocking noise as the bullets smack into their flesh.
How would any of us have fared in the same situation? Hopefully not as uselessly as the Kenyan police and military, who lingered outside the mall, cowering and prevaricating, while the gunmen — just four of them — went coolly about their business, murdering 67 people and wounding 175 more. When eventually the police and army did go in, they ended up shooting one another — before retreating in disarray. Moral: if you find yourself embroiled in a situation like this in a country like Kenya, don’t bank on the authorities coming to rescue you before it’s too late.
The last victim — to the security services’ eternal shame — was shot more than three hours after the killers first started firing. But the death toll would undoubtedly have been higher had it not been for a small group of plain-clothes policemen and have-a-go civilians such as Somali–Kenyan businessman Abdul Haji and Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic, who launched an independent rescue mission.
By drawing the terrorists’ fire (one plain-clothes policeman taking a bullet in the process), they enabled numerous trapped shoppers to escape — some from the supermarket’s loading bay, others from their hiding places behind various counters, such as the little girl memorably caught in Tomasevic’s photos making her way to Haji as he covered her with his puny handgun.
Couldn’t happen here? We wish. I’m not so sure that consolation is available to us these days. And that, of course, is what made this documentary so fascinatingly, horribly compelling. It has happened in Mumbai. It has happened in Nairobi. There, but for the grace of God, go we all.