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How I snatched my life from the jaws of death at Westgate

There is no tomorrow — what we need to do, we should do it now.

That is the mantra of one badly injured survivor of the Westgate terrorist attack.

The story of Aqilah Kauser is one of hope forged from experience, one of accepting reality graciously and of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

Aqilah, 32, a marketing manager at a Nairobi entertainment company, was shot in both arms and hip, then was thrown into the air by an exploding grenade that fractured her right leg and sent shrapnel ripping into most of her back.

Only her large handbag that took the full force of the blast saved her from more serious injuries and probably death.

Afresh start

Only now, nearly 12 weeks after the September 21 attack on one of Nairobi’s most exclusive shopping malls, does Aqilah feel ready to tell of the agonies she suffered and how her life has changed.

With her wounds still to heal, it has left her deeply conscious of the importance of living for the moment.

“Think of today,” she said. “It’s only this moment that counts, and believe me everything can change in a moment.

Aqilah went on: “The past is your heritage, the present is your responsibility and the future is your challenge — this is what I follow now.”

And she added that the terrible events of September 21 had made her thankful for her life instead of afraid for it.

“I used to be very careful about my skin, but now I love my scars. I even call these gunshot wounds my dimples,” she said.

Aqilah’s ordeal began when she went to meet a friend at the cookery contest in the mall. Almost as a warning, her handbag zip became stuck as security guards asked to search her before she entered the mall. Eventually they let her in without searching her.

“My instincts even told me not to go there, I had even tried to change the venue of our meeting earlier.”

Aqilah made her way to a coffee shop on the third floor and decided to sit outside so she and her friend, Shamim Allu, could view the hustle and bustle of the contest.

Soon they were joined by three more people and were chatting away before starting to take pictures with their smartphones.

Then at 12.15 Aqilah heard the first set of loud noises. She held her friend’s hand and they jumped over the narrow ledge into the parking lot towards the outside ramp.

“Little did I know the terrorists were coming from there, that’s how I got shot on this arm” she said.

She lost her friends in the commotion that followed and started to run with the crowd back towards the mall.

“I kept seeing sparks and blood everywhere,” she went on. “At some point I was shot in my right arm and my hip, and a young man, maybe about 20, ripped my sweater off me and tied it to my arm to stop the bleeding.

“At this time I remember seeing Shamim in the distance. We all ended up in a huddle, a whole crowd of us, near the generator and many of us were praying out loud.”

They proved to be a perfect target for the attackers who flung a grenade at them. It landed by Aqilah’s feet and she was launched into the air.

Her enormous handbag took most of the blast and the shrapnel.

“We fell, all of us, everywhere and we were in a pile lying on top of one another. I could see Shamim’s hand and the kids’ tent from the cooking contest, I lost my vision and everything became blurry. I can still hear the screams, everything was so loud,” she recalled.

Aqilah was awoken by her cellphone vibrating. It was in her right hand and, bizarrely, she noticed that the time was 1.06pm. She still does not know who the caller was but the vibration caused people around her to hush her and tell her to quieten down. She heard whispers of other survivors saying, ‘I think she’s still alive’, as she swayed in and out of consciousness.

Think big, think positive

What Aqilah did not know at this point was that the grenade had fractured her right leg and shrapnel had lodged itself into most of her back.

“When I opened my eyes and saw all the bodies, I wondered for a second if all these people were dead or pretending to be dead. There was a girl lying on my right leg which was very painful and I started to hit her with my car keys, begging her to move. There were three people piled on top of me and I could have easily been mistaken for dead in that pile.”

The girl who was lying on top of Aqilah was alive and treated in the same hospital room as her after they were rescued.

Aqilah awoke in the ER at the Aga Khan Hospital and her treatment began. After four operations and 14 days in hospital, Aqilah found the strength to try to put the tragedy of the raid behind her.

“I don’t want a counsellor,” she said. “I can counsel myself.” And she added: “We Kenyans just need to stop focusing on the negative.”