Monday, September 30, 2013

For once, let us learn from this tragedy

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 29 September 2013

The siege at Westgate Mall in Nairobi’s Westlands suburb is over.

As I write this piece there is still no clear picture of how many people died in this terrorist attack. It is also not clear how many attackers were involved, and what happened to them. Towards the end of the siege a section of the mall collapsed, complicating recovery efforts and making it extremely difficult to know the eventual fate of those that were in the building at the time.

During the attack, Kenyans demonstrated their strength in ways that nobody could have expected. Ordinary citizens found ways of contributing to the rescue and recovery, in all sorts of ways. Some prepared food for the responders; others donated blood, while even others volunteered to take care of the immediate needs of the survivors.

Many Kenyans converted their vehicles into ambulances and took the injured to hospitals, while others braved the hail of bullets and grenades and went into the mall to save trapped civilians. This attack has brought us together, and helped us to momentarily forget our political and ethnic differences in the face of attack by a foreign terrorist organisation.

No one paused to ask the tribe or status of the person they were helping. People were not taken only to hospitals run by people who share their political or religious views. For a moment, we were simply Kenyans again. 


Despite the show of unity, however, questions about how the attack was handled abound. One expects that investigations will be diligently carried out to get to the bottom of this atrocity. Initial indications were disconcerting.

For instance, there seemed to be no overall co-ordination of the government response to the attack.
Information was being provided by different government agencies and officials and sometimes they contradicted each other.

During a disaster, the first and most important need is information. There ought to be an authority to inform the public regularly of the progress being made to deal with the crisis. Involved citizens often only want an assurance that everything is under control and that they are safe from further attacks. They want regular updates on the progress of rescue and recovery, from a source they trust has the correct information.

In our case, the government was initially too quiet for too long, and when they started talking to Kenyans, they gave information that often contradicted the actual situation on the ground. In a disaster, it is often better to say that it is not clear what is going on, than to make up stories that will later be revealed to have been untrue.

Despite the fact that we have had many such disasters in the past, it seems that we are incapable of learning simple lessons from such events. Due to the high profile of the Westgate attack, one hopes that we will, for once, learn a few lessons that will make it more difficult for similar attacks to happen, and improve our response should they happen.

We must also begin to implement the many disaster management strategies and plans that are gathering dust on the shelves of various government offices after lots of resources were expended in producing them. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

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