How I escaped death during Westgate Mall terrorist attack

imagesAfetsi Awoonor, son of the late Professor Kofi Awoonor, poet and former Chairman of the Council of State, has narrated, in an interview with Accra-based Radio Gold, how he narrowly escaped death in the infamous 2013 terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

Afetsi, who spoke with Okyeame Ayesnu on the station’s Home Touch programme, had accompanied his father to Kenya for the Storymoja Hay literary festival in September 2013, said his father was reluctant to go, but did not want to disappoint the organisers.

He said on that fateful Saturday his father died aged 78, they had gone to the Westgate Mall in search of spicy food at an Indian restaurant there, having grown tired of Kenyan food.

Afetsi said they got to the Mall in a taxi and were about to go inside when the terrorists struck.

“As soon as I came out of the car, I was holding the door for him [Kofi Awoonor] to come out and then we heard a loud bang.”

He said the loud bang was followed by rapid gun fire.

“I started running towards the Mall because I was already outside [the car ]. I tried to shut the door hoping that he would just lay inside.“

According to Afetsi, as he ran inside the mall, bullets flew past him, shattering the glass of the Mall.

He said from then on, he decided to run in a zigzag manner, and was doing that until a bullet hit him in the back.

“I took a bullet in the back and fell, but I crawled and I didn’t stop. I kept crawling,” he said.

He said he managed to take cover in a restaurant in the Mall and informed those inside about what was happening outside.

Afetsi said it was at that point that he turned around and realised that his father was not following him. He said he reckoned at the time that the “old man” had taken cover in the car.

“As I was still standing there, I touched my back and saw blood on my hand. That was when I remembered that I had been shot. But the focus was on my dad – if he was okay.”

He said he and some others in the restaurant then entered into the kitchen and hid there.

Not long after, according to him, one of the terrorists came inside and shot some people who were lying on the ground in the restaurant.

“At that point, I thought ‘okay this is it’. I was just waiting for him to come and shoot me. But then I don’t know what happened and heard the sound of the bullet moving farther away. So I realised he was moving away.”

A that point, he said he took his phone out of his pocket and called the Ghanaian Ambassador to Kenya, Mr Kingsley Karimu, and someone who worked at the UN and briefed them about what had happened.

According to him, they assured him that they would alert the security agencies immediately.

He said throughout the ensuing rescue operation by Kenyan security forces, the aforementioned officials kept him updated via the phone.

Afetsi said he kept asking about the whereabouts of his father during the entire period.

He was eventually taken to a hospital where his back was operated upon.

He said he declined to be sedated before the operation, and that even while the surgery was being done, he still made calls, trying to find out if his father had been found.

The 33-year-old added that at about 3am the next day, news came in that Prof. Awoonor’s body had been found.

Afetsi described the late Awoonor as a “father and a friend”, who “wouldn’t accept nonsense from anybody”, but at the same time was “loving and caring”.

He said although his father’s death was painful, he was consoled by the fact that the late poet’s work had inspired thousands of people.

“I believe he is still being celebrated and that is how he wanted to be remembered.

“I’ve accepted what happened and I’m living with it. There are responsibilities I need to take on now, and I’ve embraced it,” he said.

Renowned diplomat and poet

Prof. Awoonor served as Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil and Cuba in the 1980s, and was Ghana’s representative to the United Nations under the presidency of Jerry Rawlings from 1990 to 1994.

He was also Chairman of the Council of State, an advisory body to the President, but stepped down from that role earlier in 2013.

He was a renowned writer, most notably for his poetry inspired by the oral tradition of the Ewe people, to which he belonged.

Much of his best work was published in Ghana’s immediate post-independence period, part of which he spent in exile after the first President Kwame Nkrumah, whom Awoonor was close to, was overthrown in a coup.

Prof. Awoonor returned to Ghana in 1975 and was later arrested and tried over his suspected involvement in a coup, according to a biography from the US-based Poetry Foundation.

He was released after 10 months, and the foundation said his imprisonment influenced his book “The House by the Sea”.

During his time in the United States in the early 1970s, Prof. Awoonor was Chairman of the Department of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

About 67 people died, while about 176 were injured in the Westgate Mall terrorist attack, according to Kenyan authorities.

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