Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

Kenya gets better at helping attack survivors cope

Terrorist attacks have killed hundreds of Kenyans in recent years

Kenya Red Cross staff assist a grieving woman at the Chiromo Mortuary in Nairobi on January 17, 2019. AFP
Kenya Red Cross staff assist a grieving woman at the Chiromo Mortuary in Nairobi on January 17, 2019. AFP

On Thursday, 48 hours after explosions first rent the air on Riverside Drive, traffic once again flowed — or crawled, this being Nairobi — down the street. Police vehicles rumbled in and out of the still-barricaded drive to the DusitD2 hotel. A small scrum of press had gathered at the perimeter, awaiting what they had been told would be a controlled detonation of explosives found in the hotel.

Two suspects had been arrested in connection with the attack claimed by Somalia's Al Shabab militants, it was announced. The death toll had been revised upward to 21, not counting the five perpetrators.

Just down the road from the 14 Riverside Drive complex, at Chiromo Mortuary, family members of those killed sat under tents in plastic chairs, gripping each other’s hands while they waited for post mortems to be completed and the bodies of their loved ones to be released. A woman in a purple vest that read “Kenya Counselling and Psychological Association” rubbed the back of a young woman who was bent over in grief.

“We are here to support people who experienced trauma,” said Florence Ogola, a spokeswoman for the Kenya Red Cross. “Whether they were at the scene and were affected psychologically by what they saw, or whether they maybe lost a family member, we are here to help them accept what has happened and give them coping mechanisms.”

Police officers examine an abandoned car suspected to have been used by Al Shabab attackers at the DusitD2 hotel in Nairobi, on January 17, 2018. AFP
Police officers examine an abandoned car suspected to have been used by Al Shabab attackers at the DusitD2 hotel in Nairobi, on January 17, 2018. AFP

In a country where five in six Kenyans with mental health conditions do not receive treatment – because of cost, lack of awareness or stigma – counselling services have become increasingly available in the aftermath of traumatic events like terrorist attacks. The Kenya Red Cross and its partners provided one-on-one counselling here at the mortuary after the Garissa University attack in 2015, also claimed by Al Shabab. This time, a toll-free phone number where a caller can be connected to a counsellor has been added to the resources they offer.

“In Kenya, we have not yet really recognised mental health,” said one counselor who asked not to be named because her organisation hadn’t authorised her to speak with the press. “We have not yet really taken it seriously.”

After tragedies like this, she said, it’s common to encounter recently bereaved people who are suicidal.

“We are learning, and as we are learning we are responding earlier than before,” she said. “Compared to the other disasters this one was very strong.”

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Read more:

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Nairobi attack shows Al Shabab still powerful despite US efforts

Nairobi attack survivor's escape from Al Shabab militants: We were focused on getting out alive

Nairobi attack: Al Shabab militants 'eliminated' after deadly 20-hour siege

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Efforts are being made to put more resources toward mental health on the national level, with a new mental health policy put forth by the Ministry of Health in 2015. There are currently about 100 psychiatrists in Kenya, a country of 50 million people. That’s up from 79 just four years ago.

On Thursday, staffers in red vests were a whirl of activity, fetching chairs for people to sit.

“Would you like some water?” a volunteer asked repeatedly in Swahili, handing out bottles and packets of biscuits.

Tents erected in the parking area protected against the equatorial sun. The counselling desk sat opposite the tracing desk, where people could report and track down missing loved ones through a complex system of triangulation.

“We check with the hospitals,” Ms Ogola said. “We check bodies at the mortuaries and at the same time check back in with families. Sometimes maybe the missing person’s phone was just off. And we also check against the register of people who are listed as working inside the complex.”

As of Thursday afternoon, all of the 94 tracing cases were closed and the Red Cross reported that 595 people had used their counselling services.

Just inside the mortuary gate, Joseph Mwangi stood by his flower stand and watched funeral home vehicles coming in and out, much as he did after Garissa and Al Shabab's attack on Westgate Mall in 2013. He has sold flowers and handmade floral arrangements here for 10 years.

“The flowers, it just brings some hope,” he said. “Our lives are like flowers. Now you can see the flowers are just blooming. The next day, it’s gone.”

Updated: January 19, 2019 02:24 PM

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