Dusit attack

Workers are guided to safety by security agents during the rescue operation at DusitD2 Hotel in Nairobi on January 15, 2019.

| File | Nation Media Group

What surviving the Dusit terror attack taught us about life

It is not every day that one wakes up in the morning and heads off to work hoping to have a normal day but ends up in a room full of strangers as a hostage for about 13 hours.

Well, for my two friends Dickson Onyango and Oliver Mwenda and me, that day was January 15, 2019, when armed gunmen stormed the Dusit complex on Riverside Drive in Nairobi and rained terror on unarmed civilians.

For years, we have kept the memories of that day to ourselves, only occasionally sharing them with those closest to us, hoping that time, as they say, would heal and patch up the wounds. Sometimes it worked, other times it did not.

But now, three years later, we sit down and reflect on that day, the journey thereafter, and whether the events of that fateful Tuesday afternoon has had any effect on how we live, view life and interact with our families, friends and everyone else.

In some cases, our emotions and thoughts have been affected, as we try to come to terms with what happened and whether things would have turned out differently had we made certain decisions differently.

What is certain, though, is that the journey of healing has been at least bearable, and that we came out alive to tell our story.

“I thank God that date is way behind me. It will remain the hardest exam room I ever attended in my life, because with it came questions that only God would answer on my behalf. It derailed me a bit but I am happy to be free again,” said Mr Onyango.

That day began just like any other in the newsroom. But at around noon, I was asked to go interview the chief executive officer of the Commission on Revenue Allocation. I was paired with Mr Onyango, who was my camera person. I was working at NTV as a reporter at the time.

From the onset, things seemed a bit off. We arrived for the interview late, and our driver was switched at least three times. Mr Onyango and I later believed that this was a conspiracy of fate, because had things worked out as we had intended, we perhaps would have died in the attack.

The CRA offices were located at the Dusit complex, and so we left the newsroom a little past 2pm. We later learnt that had we gone there earlier, we would have met the assailants on our way out and would not have survived their terror, since the attack began minutes after we started our interview.

Also, had we opted for the first driver assigned to us, chances are we would have been engaged in a confrontation with the terrorists who had parked their car right at the entrance to the complex, causing a traffic snarl-up that greatly inconvenienced us.

“I am happy we had Philemon Kimaiyo at the wheel for this assignment, because the snarl-up we found at the gate required some level of patience to pass the test and danger that was lying right at the gate,” Mr Onyango said.

“I remember seeing some cars parked just before the first barrier. One of them on the side was a Toyota Ractis with tinted windows, which we later learnt was the vehicle used and later blown up by the terrorists.”

Once inside the complex and in the CRA offices, we were met by Mr Mwenda, who was the communications officer and our liaison with the CEO.

“I recall we had scheduled a media interview with the CRA chief executive, at that time George Ooko. I had brought my car closer to the entrance of our building, because I anticipated that the interview would take at least 20 minutes, after which I could rush to Kenya School of Law, where I was undertaking my advocate training,” Mr Mwenda said.

“But then, I remember we had just done a brief introduction when we heard a loud bang. I instantly felt that something was wrong, because the bang was quite loud and unusual. And when I looked at my CEO, I knew that we shared the same sentiments. He asked me to check it out. I opened the boardroom window and saw smoke billowing from the building.”

It is this first explosion that set in motion a chain of events that would later shape our lives in different ways. Mr Onyango and I initially thought that the explosion was from a building inside or even outside the complex that was under attack from armed robbers.

Sporadic gun shots

But we were wrong. Soon after, there were sporadic gun shots, and a second explosion, albeit less loud than the first one. We all went into a frenzy.

“Journalists are by nature very curious people and so it is at this point that I remember asking Silas to carry our equipment as we went out to check what exactly was happening. We were on the second floor and decided to head straight out to the staircase. At this time, the shooters were drawing nearer but we could not tell which side they were coming from,” Mr Onyango said.

“It is also at this time that I then decided to try to capture the action, as people by now were rushing for the stairs. I drew out my PXW 200 camera, ready to shoot. But woe unto me, I remember looking through the window while on the stairs and seeing some unpleasant-looking gentleman disguised from head to toe, just in his last move to pull the trigger, and that is when I knew all was not well.”

All this while, I was still holding some of the equipment we had carried to the building, as Mr Onyango dashed for the elevators, which, luckily, failed to open. Mr Onyango’s first reaction was to use the elevators and go downstairs, where I believe he would have met the assailants.

Mr Mwenda had by this time, he now says, thought of an alternative way out of the building, the window.

“I didn’t even think twice. I just ran out, went to the second floor and I remember going to the window and jumping down. I didn’t even remember it was the second floor, because I thought by the time I ran down to the ground floor, chances were that I would have met face to face with whoever was shooting,” he said.

“How I landed without pain I still have no clue, but I recall running to the back gate, forcing the guard who was there to open it, before heading towards the ICEA building.”

Mr Onyango and I would spend the next 13 hours separately holed up inside the building’s washroom with strangers as we waited for help. The police had by this time arrived and were battling it out with the terrorists.

“Boy! That was a scary time. First, going through nonstop gunfire exchanges and loud explosions all in simultaneous rhythm, and also trying to get the safest hideout. Our room appeared to be better than outside or at least for that moment. I went silent and so did everyone else locked inside,” Mr Onyango said.

So what are some of the lessons we have learnt from the whole ordeal three years later?

Old routine

“After going through that experience, you honestly cannot view life the same way. I always remember that when I left the house that day, I had plans, people to meet, things I had postponed to do because I would do them later. But who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have made it home then. There are people who left their families in the morning never to return. What is life?” Mr Mwenda said.

But with time, I think I’ve gone back to my old routine. Occasionally, I pass by Dusit and the memories start flooding back. But the realisation that any day could be your last day on earth is such a heart-wrenching reality,”

For Mr Onyango, the initial days were difficult and were filled with doubts, paranoia and sometimes suspicions about different people, feelings I equally shared with him.

“The experience from the Dusit attack taught me to take life a day at a time and how to value my freedoms. In the initial months, I was super cautious. I looked at everyone suspiciously, especially when making visits to hotels and malls. But now, that has subsided - I remain cautious but not to the extreme,” Mr Onyango said.

Three years later, I have not returned to the Dusit complex, even after it reopened for business. My hope is that my healing would come from avoiding that place. Maybe I am wrong or maybe I am not.