Monday, September 23, 2013

PEV psychological wounds far from healed; And now #WestgateAttack

Friends, I wrote this article for the Sunday Nation before the Saturday attacks at Westgate Mall in the Westlands surburb of Nairobi. It was subsequently published on Sunday, in the paper that contained the relatively insensitive cover picture that elicited an apology from the Nation Media Group after a social media uproar.
I upload it here for two reasons.
Firstly, I use this space to share my 'Barometer' column with my readers who may not have access to the paper for one reason or another, or prefer using social media links to get it.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I think it is particularly instructive, insofar as it stipulates some of the prerequisites for healing of psychological wounds such as those inflicted on our countrymen and women before and in 2008, and again, now in September 2013.
I wish to express my deepest condolences to all families that have lost loved ones in this tragedy, and hope that what we take away from here is the resolve to take measures to ensure that it becomes exceedingly difficult for anyone to plot and carry out attacks on Kenyan soil ever again.
May you find support and healing in these difficult times. As we say in these parts, 'Tuko pamoja', or #WeAreOne
By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 22 September 2013

The opening of the trials of Kenyans accused of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague has rekindled painful memories among many survivors of the 2008 post-election violence. While many Kenyans are watching the trials with different motives depending on their political leanings, for the survivors this was the last recourse in their search for justice.

The media has highlighted reactions of segments of our society and in my view, provided a window into the soul of our nation. There are those that hold that some of the atrocities being mentioned at the ICC never occurred, and that the trials are a political attempt at humiliating Kenyan leaders.

Obviously, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But, as an American leader once said, nobody is entitled to their own facts. The reality is that in 2008 Kenyans went on an orgy of violence that left over a thousand dead, and thousands displaced from their homes. We all saw the burning buildings, the machete-wielding militia, the bow-and-arrow brigades, policemen shooting at protestors and politicians shouting epithets at each other.

As medical doctors, we personally attended to dozens of survivors with physical and psychological wounds, and organised a mental health and psychosocial response that reached tens of thousands. We escorted bereaved relatives to mortuaries and helped them identify their kin, providing psychological support to those that needed it.

It was a tough time. At some point we thought that the country had finally jumped off the cliff, and that recovery would take more effort than we were capable of marshalling as a country. Luckily for us, international mediators took it upon themselves to break the impasse, resulting in the grand coalition mongrel that ruled us for five years before the elections early this year.

It is therefore disturbing to hear some Kenyans argue that we have since reconciled, and that we should simply move on because all is well in the political sphere. In my opinion, it is only those that are far removed from the actual victims that are capable of making such callous statements.

Healing psychological wounds cannot be legislated or ordered by the powers that be. It is a process that takes time, and depends heavily on a secure enabling environment. Just like with physical wounds, an enabling environment for psychological healing has certain indispensable elements.

Firstly, it is pervaded by a sense that something wrong was done, accompanied by true, deep remorse on the part of the perpetrators. Secondly, there is a sense that justice has been done, and that some attempt at restitution has been carried out. Thirdly, there is a collective agreement that the atrocities must never be allowed to happen again, and tangible early intervention measures have been put in place to deal with them should they recur. Finally, provision of long-term care to those survivors who need it is a sine qua non of a healing society.

From where I sit, I cannot honestly say Kenya provides such a secure enabling healing environment for survivors of past atrocities. We are still at a place where a slight misunderstanding could spark an all-out conflagration that will make 2008 look like New Year’s Day fireworks.

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

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