Last Saturday, Harish Ramji Rabadia (43), the head of the Krishna Squad, got a panicked phone call from a friend. “A robbery is under way at the Nakumatt at Westgate mall.”

A thickset man with rounded shoulders and a massive neck hung with thick gold chains Harish slipped on a checked shirt, olive green pants, and sneakers, chose his Brazilian semi-automatic Taurus pistol over his 9 mm Ceska, packed an extra clip of bullets, and hurried down to Nairobi’s poshest mall.

At the mall, a young mother, in a bloodstained burqa , stumbled out the front steps as Harish pulled up. A phalanx of heavily armed gunmen, allied to the al-Shabaab militia, had stormed the building, swarming its entrances at the basement, ground-level and second floor, killing as many as they could.

“They have sent a message: They are here to stay,” she said, cradling her infant even as blood oozed out of a bullet wound to her shoulder, “They have enough ammunition…They have come to finish their work.”

Harish looked around; the Krishna squad is a volunteer group that provides security for funerals, cremations and religious processions organised by Nairobi’s large South Asian community. Harish owns a private gun licence but has little formal training.

“Shooting practice I’ve done, but not this kind of thing,” he said, explaining that he bought his first gun 10 years ago, “To my knowledge, it was the Nakumatt that was being robbed, we didn’t know it was a terrorist organisation.”

The Kenyan Defence Force (KDF) was yet to arrive, but Harish spotted some police officers he knew. He also met Abdul Haji, the son of Kenya’s former Defence Minister, Yusuf Haji, who was also armed and looking for his brother.

“We decided right then to move together and provide cover for each other,” Harish said later, “We saw people coming out of the basement and decided to help them.”

Drawn out operation

The militants would hold their ground for four days, killing at least 62 civilians and six soldiers, and injuring hundreds; 61 are still missing. The Kenyan Defence Force (KDF), army and elite General Security Unit eventually arrived to flush out the attackers in a controversial and secretive operation.

On Friday, a report by The Daily Nation newspaper claimed that a senior officer of the elite General Service Unit paramilitary squad was killed by friendly fire from a KDF unit. Other reports suggest that a number of attackers escaped the siege under the guise of fleeing hostages.

Yet, for the first four hours on that terrifying Saturday afternoon, a small group of police officers of Kenyan origin; and civilians like Harish and Abdul, whose family hails from the Ogaden Somali region, held the militants at bay and offered an inspiring instance of pluralism in a country that has, at times, struggled to engage with its diversity. Their accounts also provide crucial detail at a time when the government has provided little information on the operation beyond the fact of its completion.

“In my family, there is just me, my wife and three children,” said Harish, who was born in Kutch, but has a Kenyan passport, “Instead of thinking of my family, I tried to think of the hundreds we could save.”

The Westgate Mall is a four-storey building with a parking lot in the basement, and elevated parking that leads to the second floor via a ramp. “I told Harish, we go in, you cover me,” said J, a police officer who declined to be identified, as his ragtag team hurried to the basement.

Getting them out

“The first person I saw was a woman in a car with her husband lying dead next to her,” J said, “We got her out. Then an old woman shot through the leg, her husband was dead as well.” Harish and the team loaded her onto a stretcher, deposited her outside and moved to the rooftop parking where the militants had flung grenades into a children’s cooking competition.

“The first woman we saw, an Asian lady, dead. I saw an Asian man. Dead. Then an African guy under a car pointed out an unexploded grenade,” said J.

As rescue workers tended to the wounded, the men entered the mall through the second floor entrance and split into two teams: Officer J joined a police team headed to the six-screen multiplex on the fourth floor to clear out civilians. Upstairs, the team found over a 100 people hiding in the darkness of the cinema halls and herded them to safety through the second floor exit. Then they began a shop by shop sweep of second, third and fourth floors.

In the meantime, Harish and the others moved to the lower floors where they could hear gunshots. As he looked down the building’s central atrium, he spotted a young man in body armour, chains of belts of ammunition slung across his shoulders, a light machine gun at his hip, spraying bullets into the shops around him. “He was firing so hard that he couldn’t control the gun,” Harish recalled, “he slid across the floor like he was on roller skates”. The team returned fire, forcing the gunman into the electronics section of the Nakumatt supermarket. The corridors were curiously empty; all the civilians had either fled the building in the chaos or were hiding in the countless toilets, storage rooms, beauty parlours, shops and salons.

Dangerously exposed

Abdul, the ex-Minister’s son, took cover behind a pillar along the line of shops. Harish stood opposite to him, behind a cake display, and took aim at the entrance of the supermarket where a young militant, in a white bandanna, stood with a Kalashnikov. High above them, on the third floor, Officer J looked down to see his inexperienced team dangerously exposed. “Take cover, heavy fire,” he screamed as a bullet whistled past Harish and hit Corporal Noora in the stomach. He was evacuated and survived.

Right across the supermarket entrance, Katherine Walton, an IT worker from North Carolina, took cover behind a table with her three young girls as the battle raged around them. “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,” Abdul said, in an interview with Kenyan television station NTV.

The team flung two cans of tear gas into the supermarket, the firing ceased abruptly and Portia, Walton’s four-year-old daughter, rushed across the corridor to Abdul. Walton and her other daughters escaped soon after. “By now the reinforcements had arrived and entered the supermarket,” Harish said, “As soon as we got a chance, we started clearing people out. People who knew me called and said, ‘I am trapped here’, and we rescued them.”

He stuck close to the reinforcements for the next 48 hours, ferrying hostages, removing bodies and coordinating with rescue workers, and stepping out to snatch a few hours of sleep.

The attackers, he said, had spread themselves across the mall and frequently changed positions. He did not know how many civilians were left in the mall when the KDF began its final assault, but expressed scepticism about the number of people being reported as still missing. “It is possible there are still a few bodies trapped under the rubble,” he said, “But we tried to get everyone out. In the darkness, at night, we were going looking for people.”