Conflict & Justice

Meet the Kenyan hero who fought terrorists and rescued dozens

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Credit:

REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Four year old Portia Walton runs toward Abdul Haji during the Westgate Mall massacre. Her mom and others shelter under the black and white table in the middle. The terrorists are holed up and firing from the supermarket beyond the table.

Last Saturday, terrorists stormed the fashionable Westgate Mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and began killing at random.

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Thousands of powerful images have come out of the siege, but one struck us in particular. It's of a little girl running across the mall toward a man in check shirt with a gun. Turns out the four-year-old girl is Portia Walton, from North Carolina.  

"I mean seriously this is a very brave girl," says the man in the check shirt: 38-year-old businessman, Abdul Haji, in an interview with Kenya's NTV news.

Haji helped save the lives of dozens of people at the Mall last Saturday, including Portia and the rest of her family.

He was in a business meeting across town when he got a text from his brother.

"Stuck in Westgate. I think it's a terrorist attack. Pray for me."

But Abdul Haji wasn't content to just pray.  A shooting enthusiast, he was carrying a heavy duty SSK pistol and 14 rounds. Pretty soon he was in the Westgate Mall parking lot.

"What we saw was a lot of dead people,” he says. “Very young people. Children. Old ladies. You cannot imagine. We just stopped thinking."

The attack had been going an hour already. The counter-terror police had not yet arrived.

"We could some people who were injured, and we were thinking, how can we assist these people?"

The Red Cross wanted to bring in the wounded. So Haji teamed up with about half a dozen other armed volunteers and three regular cops and went in.

"We saw some people lying on the floor and called on them to get up and get out. We did that at every store that we went by."

Then they got to the Nakumatt supermarket and came under fire. One of the officers was shot in the stomach and crawled to safety. It was then they saw some people crouching under a table right in the middle of the crossfire. It was little Portia Walton, her mom Katherine, her two other kids - toddlers, and another lady, a stranger.  Two adults, and three little kids.

"There's no way we can run with the kids," Haji recalls the Mom saying.  "So we asked, ‘Is one of the kids reasonably older?’ She nodded, and we said, ‘Could you please ask the kid to run towards us?’ And I have to admit this girl; this little girl is a very brave girl. Amidst all this chaos around her, she remained calm. She wasn't crying. And she actually managed to run towards men carrying guns. I mean seriously, this is a very brave little girl."

Abdul Haji and his fellow volunteers escorted the survivors out of the Mall. There, he was reunited with his brother, safe and sound. The Waltons have been living in Kenya for two years and do not intend to leave. Mrs. Walton told the British paper, the Daily Telegraph, "There will always be bad people in the world but it's the comfort of knowing that there are good people that matters.... It's an honor and privilege to live among such good people."

She has not yet met Abdul Haji since the rescue, but says, "She owes him a hug or two."

Haji was not pleased to see his picture going viral on the web in the days that followed, but he decided to come forward speak out. One reason was to condemn the attack. Another, he says, is to tell the world that these people, the terrorists, are not representing Muslims.

"What we saw done at the Westgate Mall was contrary to the teachings of Islam."

Haji is an ethnic Somali, like the suspected terrorists. And a Muslim. 

Abdul Haji has been troubled with nightmares since the attack. His wife told the Daily Nation paper in Kenya he weeps in his sleep.

"I don't think I'm a hero. I think I did what any Kenyan would have done in the same situation. What any human being would have done."

 

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