NAIROBI — Kenyan mental health workers say the terrorist siege on a shopping mall in the capital Nairobi will leave lasting scars on the nation’s psyche. Victims and soldiers alike are trying to cope with the trauma of the attacks, which left more than 60 people dead and nearly 200 wounded.
The gunshots have stopped, as have the sporadic explosions. The helicopters no longer circle the skies above the Westgate shopping center.
But for four days, the mall was the scene of unspeakable horror, inflicted by a group of al-Shabab militants armed with guns and grenades, and intent on killing as many people as they could: men, women and children.
Loi Awat, a television writer in Nairobi, hid in a Barclays bank branch inside the Nakumatt supermarket at the mall for four hours as the gunmen rampaged through the aisles.
“For some time we in the bank didn’t know they were terrorists, we thought they were coming to rob the bank," she said."Then they didn’t come and we thought they were robbing Nakumatt because they spent so much time around Nakumatt, then we heard them saying something in Arabic and we were like ‘Oh my God.’”
Awot said she remembered every detail, the voices of the militants, the moment the television, still on inside the bank, started broadcasting news of the attack.
She sent messages to her friends on the outside to give them as much information as she could to try to save her life.
Now, she tries not to think about it.
“It’s one of those things that once you experience it, you can’t unexperience it," she said. "It’s one of those things that the feeling of being there is so significant, its so clear, you can’t not be changed, or you can’t not think differently after that, after such a thing.”
During the siege, the Red Cross recruited mental health counselors to speak with families and victims and to help guide them through the traumatic ordeal.
At the Oshwal community center a block away from the Westgate mall, volunteer psychologists shared cups of tea with the bereaved.
Coping with tragedy
Dr. Gladys Mwiti, the chair of the Kenya Psychological Association, says doctors have adopted strategies to cope with tragedy learnt from past events, including Kenya’s last major terrorist attack, the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in 1998.
Speaking to journalists on the last day of military operations, she said the impact of Westgate will be worse than that.
"The reason being this is an extended period of time. With the bombing, it happened and things stopped," she said. "But then we know that this has been like a bleeding thing. “
Fear, anxiety and apprehension are all symptoms Mwiti says people experience after traumatic events. Another one is false guilt.
“False guilt is like saying, ‘Why did I have to allow my wife and my baby to go to Nakumatt on that day to do shopping?’ Of course nobody knew it would happen,” she said.
Counselors also met with Kenyan soldiers who fought the exhausting battle against a dangerous and unpredictable opponent and who witnessed first-hand the gruesome scene inside the mall.
Psychologist June Koinange worked with soldiers at the Oshwal center.
“Let’s put it this way," she said. "There are some things that of course we cannot share, but they share with us, but we cannot share publicly. However, one of the things that came out very strongly for us was the fact that they appreciated the fact that somebody cares enough to ask them ‘how are you feeling?’”
After announcing victory over the militants, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared three days of mourning for the country.
But healing a traumatized nation will likely take somewhat longer.