A terrified mum-of-two has given an incredible first-hand account of the moment she was caught up in a terrorist attack on a Kenyan shopping centre with her two children.
Tracy Yach, who was visiting from South Africa, told of how she was enjoying a burger with her teenage children Zach and Gabi on a restaurant balcony when the attackers struck.
“All of a sudden there was a huge explosion a couple of metres from where we were sitting,” she recounted in an email to friends.
“Cement falling on our heads, followed by continual popping and a whizzing sound of bullets around us. Thankfully the shots were all high.”
She continued: “I grabbed the kids trying to corner us in with the metal chairs and table which would not budge. Not wanting to make any further noise as the gunmen were very close, I whispered to the kids to lie as still as mice.”
She added: “Once I knew they were OK, I remember telling them to just pretend we are dead.”
Nairobi’s Jewish community was struggling to coming terms with the terrifying siege of an Israeli-owned shopping centre by jihadist gunmen, which has so far claimed the lives of at least 60 people.
In what one Jewish community leader described as a “Kenya’s darkest and saddest days,” there was relief that all community members and registered Israeli citizens have already been accounted for.
Local resident Ashley Myers said the capital’s small Jewish community, numbering only a few hundred, had come together and rallied round, with Rabbi Brachyayu of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation confirming: “Many community members have donated blood.”
His wife Rebecca said there were plans for a commemoration ceremony for the victims at the synagogue, saying: “It is for survivors from the community to come together to say the prayer Birkat Gomel, the blessing of thanks when people have been in a life-threatening situation.”
There were reports of some lucky escapes, including that of the community president’s Israeli wife Rina, who was trapped in the mall for six hours before managing to escape. Albert Attias said he and Rina were now considering their future in the country, where they own several businesses, after describing the nature of the attack.
“They were moving from place to place picking people, demanding they say an Islamic prayer,” he said. “Whoever could not was shot dead.”
Several Jewish businesses were located in the mall, which is part owned by an Israeli company.
Israeli commandos were believed to have been involved in the action, although Jerusalem officials refused to be drawn on reports.
As operations unfolded, an anonymous source told AFP: “The Israelis have entered the shopping centre… They are rescuing the hostages and the injured.” A defence ministry official was confirmed an Israeli presence.
A spokesman for the terrorists posted a real-time statement to a Somali website, saying: “Israelis and Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate (mall) by force.”
Speculation centred on two Israeli units – the Yamam (a police unit) or Sayeret (an IDF unit) – potentially working alongside Kenyan forces to end the siege, which left at least six Britons dead.
However, Reuters quoted a security source as saying that the Israeli team had only been helping with “negotiating strategy” to end the siege.
Four Israelis were in the building when the militants took control of the mall on Saturday. Two fled and two were rescued, with one young Israeli worker requiring treatment to a minor injury. A spokesman from Maden David Adom said the group had been on standby, but that it had not been called upon.
Officials from the Israeli embassy in Kenya explained the link between the two countries. “The shopping centre is owned by Israelis and renowned as a place where many Israelis hang out,” said Israel’s Deputy Ambassador to Kenya Yaki Lopez.
“Four of the restaurants there are also owned by Israelis and many Israelis are employed in the place. They were our main concern, but we also support our Kenyan friends and ready to assist in whichever way they ask.”
A visiting Israeli, Yariv Kedar, who was on the balcony of a café when the shooting began, said he abandoned all of his Israeli identification because “the worst citizenship to have in that case was Israeli citizenship”.
The three-day attack is thought to have been orchestrated by fighters linked to al-Shabaab, a group of al-Qaeda-affiliated militants based in Somalia.
They are believed to have targeted Kenya, after the country sent thousands of troops into Somalia two years ago to reclaim the capital Mogadishu from the Islamist militants.
However, in an interview with al-Jazeera, a spokesman for the group’s military operations Sheikh Abulaziz Abu Muscab said that the rationale for attacking the shopping centre included the presence of “Jewish shops”.
He said: “We attacked Westgate shopping mall where tourists from across the world come to shop, where diplomats gather. It is a place where Kenya’s decision-makers go to relax and enjoy themselves. Westgate is a place where there are Jewish and American shops. So we have to attack them.”