A few minutes past 3 p.m. on January 15, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Secret Garden Restaurant in the Riverside 14 Complex. At first, many assumed that the blast resulted from a gas cylinder explosion.
Shortly after, a staccato of gunfire rent the air. It was then that I received a call from a colleague who had proceeded to dusitD2 for an assignment. She sounded panicked, saying “a guy was shooting people”. Thinking of Western interests in the Riverside area, the Australian High Commission came to mind, and I sought to reassure her that the GSU there would handle it. Her panic rose, as did her voice. I heard the gunshots, screams and yelling.
“It is us under attack!" she said.
I advised her to find the fire exit. I’ve been to the Riverside 14 Complex many times on routine assignments as well as leisure. So I knew behind the Soi Restaurant and Dusit meeting rooms, there was a deck that leads to an intimate garden facing the river that has a fire exit leading to the adjacent Riverside Park property. I told her to find her way there and keep running until she found safety. I advised her not to call back until she was safe.
I dashed to my editor’s office to inform him of the incident, and updated the rest of the newspaper and NTV editorial teams on different floors at Nation Centre. (Incidentally, two of my colleagues from the Editorial Department would remain holed up in the complex until 3 a.m. the next day when they were rescued). At that point it was not known that our colleagues from NTV had also been caught up in the attack. It would be the NTV reporter, Silas Apollo, corroborating this information and giving updates of the situation on live television.
I was worried sick for these colleagues and the friends I’d made in the various offices at 14 Riverside. I was praying they get out alive and unharmed. It became clear to me that it was a serious incident, because there had been social media reports of the suicide bomber, later identified by security agencies as 25-year-old Mahir Khalid Riziki. Plus, mass shootings? That only meant the area was under attack.
Being a newsroom, teams of reporters and photojournalists were marshalled like fire fighters to a disaster site, only fighting with the ink (said to be mightier than the sword) and camera, in an attempt to document the frightful moment in our war against terror.
I turned down the assignment because my friend and colleagues were in there. I was unsure of my friend's safety and whereabouts. It was a priority of mine to see her safe before I could be invested in telling that story through pictures. However, this is not what I said as I asked to be excused.
Covering acts of terror is dicey. Where do you start disseminating the fear that such assailants are peddling? How do you tell the tales of survival, of horror and the resilience of the human spirit without terrorising the consumers of your content?
This is how I ended up covering the Inspector-General of Police, at a press conference during which he said that it was a suspected terrorist attack and that the situation was being handled by Special Forces. The swift response has set a precedent worthy of commendation and that will inspire confidence in the Police Service and other disciplined forces who helped calm the nation.
Fast forward to two weeks after the attack and the Business Daily is invited to see the Riverside 14 Complex by its management. The thought of going there was quite frankly mind-numbing. I did not want to go. People died there. I was not at peace and I said a prayer before heading there. Upon arrival, I was pleasantly reassured by the presence of GSU and regular police alongside the private security guards. The bullet holes, broken glass, twisted steel, blood splatter and body parts had been cleaned up, a fresh coat of paint had been applied on the building and a large banner announced defiantly: “We will be back soon”.
Meeting the Riverside 14 management team only confirmed their resilience and commitment to rise from this unfortunate incident. Tenants spoke with pride about how they had been cared for, offered counselling services and the warmth with which they had been tended to during the days that they were coming to terms with the tragedy. A coffee station set up at the Soi Restaurant across from the main entrance of Dusit D2 Hotel for all.
Whilst taking the images to go with the story that ran on the weekend edition of Friday February 1, the dusitD2 security staff, being hyper alert, were deeply uncomfortable with my presence, before it was clarified why I was there.
The resolve to stay open, defy terror and shine is to be celebrated, along with government support for business and citizens affected. Terrorism is not unique to Kenya. May this be a learning curve for all in disaster management and response. Like in other cities across the world such as Paris, Tel Aviv, London, we too, still rise. May we be our brother's keeper by reporting any suspicious activity or people to the police and may the souls of the departed rest in eternal peace.