Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The day that changed Kenya: How medics saved lives in deadly Westgate attack

By Zain Verjee, Lauren Said-Moorhouse and Earl Nurse, CNN
updated 6:50 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Abbas Gullet is the secretary general of Kenya's Red Cross
  • Was one of the first emergency responders on the scene after the Westgate terror attack
  • Started volunteering with the international humanitarian organization at just 14 years old

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) -- It's a date etched in the minds of every Kenyan -- September 21, 2013. At the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, a youth cooking competition was underway, friends laughed as they sipped coffee and families strolled idly through supermarket aisles.

But the relaxing Saturday afternoon was shattered when gunmen descended upon the five-storey facility shooting shoppers indiscriminately. The siege would last four days and the carnage would leave at least 67 people dead.

When the terror attack began, Abbas Gullet was one of the first people on the scene. As the head of Kenya Red Cross, he is on the front line of emergency response when disaster strikes in the country -- and this was no exception.

Helping Kenya's vulnerable

"It's something that we never expected," Gullet says. "We always knew that something may happen, a terror attack -- I think there had been a heightened alert of terror possibility in the country in the last two, three years -- but what I can say is that when it did happen ... we acquitted ourselves very well from an emergency response point of view," he adds. "It happened at about 12:30 and by about 1:15 we were there."

How Red Cross innovates

Gullet says that day changed his life forever. Taking lead on the scene, he coordinated teams of paramedics, life support ambulances and a psychosocial unit to offer support to families of those injured or killed during the terror attack.

Community support is paramount in emergency situations, and during Westgate Gullet says that he couldn't have asked for a better response. After setting up mobile blood donation clinics, Kenyans banded together to help in whatever way they could.

"They gave blood; they gave money; anything that they could give they were out there to give," he says. "Companies came on board, individuals came on board."

Six months on and the Red Cross secretary general is able to reflect on how the aid group can continue to improve following the Westgate attack.

"The lesson learned is that they need to be better prepared, better coordination with the security forces, with the government," says Gullet. "Since then we've taken a backseat and now are working more closely with hospitals -- as the second-line providers ... we know which hospitals can get what type of person, so today if this were to happen, I know where to take the patients and we're going to do more drills with this hospital.

"But since then as Kenya Red Cross, even our own fast response emergency ambulance services and training, we have moved on another level up from then to now."

A life of dedication

What makes me continue doing this job is the ability and the opportunity it offers me to be able to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people.
Abbas Gullet, Kenya Red Cross

Born in Kenya's north eastern province of Garissa, Gullet lost both his parents when he was just five years old. Raised by his adoptive parents in the coastal city of Mombasa, he says these early events instilled a need to give back, which is part of why he began volunteering with the Red Cross at 14 years old.

Over 40 years have passed and the 55-year-old humanitarian is still working as hard as ever. On top of his leading role in Kenya Red Cross, he is also the vice president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, a position he holds since his election in November last year.

"I would say what ticks me and what makes me continue doing this job is the ability and the opportunity it offers me to be able to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people who are vulnerable," he says. "The ability to bring back hope to them, to give them back their dignity, to have a smile on their face, to have little kids who can have a basic normal life."

During Gullet's tenure in Kenya Red Cross, the disaster response organization has grown from an underfunded society to one which now operates with more than $23 million in assets.

He has established response centers and increased the number of available emergency vehicles with specialized equipment for advanced life support -- run out of Nairobi, the organization controls 53 ambulances, with another 75 arriving in June, and also leases emergency vehicles to counties that can't afford to purchase their own.

'Out of the box' ideas

With so many life-saving initiatives to finance, and an increasing number of international, regional and local NGOs fighting also for the same pie, Gullet is often having to get creative when it comes to working out where to get the money his operations require.

"You have to think out of the box to see how you would take this to the next level," he says, citing the "crazy idea" of Red Cross opening three hotels, including The Boma, a luxurious hotel in Nairobi.

"It's the first in this country, the first in the region, the first in many parts of the world that today the Red Cross owns and runs a five-star hotel," he says. "Any surpluses or profits that the hotel may make, every penny then is brought back into the humanitarian work of the Red Cross."

Despite his many successes, Gullet says there is still work to be done as he continues to strive for improvements in the emergency medicine field and for more locally-generated funding schemes.

"I want to see a day where there is less aid coming from outside and more being generated locally," he says. "Where the African governments would see their national institutions as the first port of call or their preferred choice of partners that can do as good, if not a better, job than what international NGOs would do."

READ THIS: How Westgate changed the lives of Kenyans

READ THIS: Rapping for respect in Egypt

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 9:22 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
Neurosurgeon Kachinga Sichizya talks about caring for newborns and mothers from underprivileged backgrounds.
updated 11:08 AM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mulatu Astake may be the father of a musical genre: Ethio-jazz. But when he talks about the art form, he tends to focus on its scientific merits.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Australia's Tim Cahill appeals to the linesman after a disallowed goal during the Group B match between Chile and Australia at Arena Pantanal on June 13, 2014 in Cuiaba, Brazil.
Kenya's national football team may not have made it to the World Cup Finals in Brazil -- but one man will be there for his African nation.
updated 5:53 AM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
Daniel
Kenyan funny man Daniel "Churchill" Ndambuki chooses five emerging comics from the continent to keep an eye on -- they are going to be big!
updated 6:44 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
African contemporary art is thriving, says author Chibundu Onuzo.
updated 6:10 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Photographer Ernest Cole made it his life mission to capture the injustice of apartheid in South Africa.
updated 8:39 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Mulenga Kapwepwe
Mulenga Kapwepwe has single-handedly created an explosion of arts in Zambia.
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
In the largely male-dominated world of the motorsport, South African superbike racer Janine Davies is an anomaly.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Wegkruipertjie, a short film playing at the Durban International Festival
From Ghanaian rom-coms to documentaries celebrating 20 years of South African democracy, festival-goers are spoiled for choice at this year's Durban Film Fest.
updated 8:49 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Nelson Mandela
Adrian Steirn and the 21 ICONS team have captured intimate portraits of some of South Africa's most celebrated. Here he reveals the story behind the photographs.
updated 5:26 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Explore a series of artistic street portraits designed to pay tribute to the people of the Sudanese capital.
updated 11:57 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
A growing list of popular African authors have been steadily picking up steam --and fans -- across the globe over the last several years.
updated 2:35 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
South Africa Music Legends stamps
Artist Hendrik Gericke puts a spotlight on iconic musical legends from South Africa in these incredible monochrome illustrations.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT