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‘Death was so close I had to send my final wishes’

Saturday January 19 2019

June Chepkemei with a friend after she was rescued.

June Chepkemei with a friend after she was rescued from the DusitD2 Hotel in Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY 

JOAN THATIAH
By JOAN THATIAH
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On top of June Chepkemei’s mind was worry over who would look after her young children in case she died. She started wondering who would tell them she was dead, and how life would be for them without a mother...

 

It’s 4:30pm on Tuesday. As June Chepkemei squeezed herself in the space between the mirror and the floor in the bathroom of room 417 on the fourth floor of The Dusit Hotel in Westlands, Nairobi, she was coming to terms with the real possibility of death.

This was a little over one and a half hours into the Tuesday terrorist attack that would last for more than 16 hours. She could hear gunfire outside, which sounded like it was going on forever, punctuated by occasional screams. On the top most rank of her mind was worry over who would look after her young children in case she died.

“I wrote to a close friend who I had contacted via text message and told her my final wishes. I was making peace with the fact that I could die that afternoon,” she recalls.

As she made her peace, there were conversing noises, and then a knock on the door of the room where she was hiding with five of her colleagues. If she had followed her first instinct, she would have rushed to the door. She was tired of hiding and the discomfort in her stomach caused by the anxiety was growing.

“But a few minutes earlier, my friend had sent me a text not to open the door to anyone. She told me that the rescue team would break down the door when they got to us,” she says.

So, in hushed tones, they made the decision to stay put until someone broke down the door, a decision that most probably saved their lives.

NORMAL DAY AT FIRST

Interestingly, June was not supposed to be at the Dusit D2 complex on that day. She has been on her annual leave but when her employer, The Konza Technopolis Development Authority, planned a strategy workshop to kick off the year, she decided to cut short her leave to attend the weeklong planning event in a meeting room on the first floor of the Dusit Hotel building.

Tuesday was the second day of the workshop. The day was going so well that she had to force her team of 13 to break for lunch. After lunch, she even had some time to sit at the balcony of the hotel and read a few pages of John Doerr’s Measure What matters.

June Chepkemei, who survived the January 15, 2019 terror attack at DusitD2, Nairobi.

June Chepkemei, who survived the January 15, 2019 terror attack at DusitD2, Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY

But 45 minutes into their afternoon session, they heard a loud bang.

“With the many recent suicide incidents, I thought someone had jumped off a higher floor. But the commotion outside was too much and then the gun shots began renting the air, so I began packing up my laptop,” she says recalling how her three-and-a-half-hour ordeal began.

Being a team leader, she felt a responsibility to her colleagues and so she left to look for a safe exit. The company she worked for when the terror attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall happened six years ago took them through some crisis training. She knew it was not wise to rush out through the main doors lest she meets the attackers face to face. She also knew not to run to the top floors lest she gets cornered up there. So she looked for the fire exit which she and five of her colleagues used to make it to the ground floor.

“Here, the gunshots were too many and too close so we made a quick decision to rush back upstairs and hide in the room that one of the consultants at our workshop was staying in at the hotel.”

Each of them found a place to hide, some in the bathroom, some behind the curtains and others on the bed under the guise of the pillows.

WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU

Being a former journalist and now a communications professional, June has always been on the other side of things, being the one telling the story. Suddenly, things were happening to her. She shares that this was not a good place to be.

She didn’t want to contact her family directly and so from her hiding space in the bathroom, she contacted her boss, and a trusted friend. Then she shared her plight in a WhatsApp group she is in with other media professionals.

“I tried to be strong at first. I was still feeling that sense of responsibility for my colleagues. But then someone from the media group shared that Al Shabaab had claimed responsibility for the attack. This was when I broke down. The images and memories from The West Gate attack were still too fresh. This was when I got to the point of being ready to die,” she recalls.

Vehicles go up in flames at the DusitD2 Hotel in Nairobi on January 15, 2019.

Vehicles go up in flames at the DusitD2 Hotel in Nairobi on January 15, 2019. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO.

The hardest part for her through the whole ordeal was not the gunshots or the blasts outside. It was when her friend went to her house to check on her children.

“My friend texted me to tell me that my children were home safe doing their homework and waiting for me. This was when I began thinking about what would happen if I died. Who would tell them I was dead? Would they understand what that meant? Were they old enough to understand? How would life be for them without a mother? The anxiety was too much.”

Finally, a few minutes to 6pm after three hours, which felt like three days, a team of more than 10 officers from the Recce squad broke down the door of room 417 and walked June and her colleagues out to safety.

“We were walked towards the bar, where we were held for about 15 minutes. Gunshots were still ringing all around us. The scenes were still fresh … we were then walked to an armoured car in teams of two’s.”

Outside, she was received by a team of journalists and led to an ambulance from where she called her family.

At the time of the interview, June was yet to leave her house and her car was still lying at the Dusit D2 Complex parking lot.

“This incident changed a lot of things for me. I realise that as a country, we have been focusing on the wrong things. We shouldn’t be worrying about the politicians, we should be worrying about who the police commandants is. These terrorists do not care about our tribes or political affiliations,” she says.

Will she go back to Dusit when it re-opens? I want to know. She laughs nervously. ‘Yes. It will be the safest hotel in Kenya.”

***

HOW TO RECOVER FROM A TERROR ATTACK

 

What can you do?

According to Winnie Kitetu, a clinical psychologist with Aga Khan Hospital Mombasa, traumatic events such as this one will result in a myriad of emotions ranging from fear and anxiety, and maybe even anger and confusion. Victims will struggle with nightmares and flash backs where they see their dying friends or hear the blasts all over again. She calls it the Acute Stress Disorder.

The priority within the first 24 hours of the event is psychological first aid, which entails listening and being physically present for the victim. The good news is that you need not be a medical professional to be able to offer this.

“Listen to this person actively. Listen but be careful not to repeat what happened so as not to re-traumatise them.”

She reckons that especially when there are no physical injuries, it is easy for someone to ignore the psychological support.

“Even if you feel fine, get a mental assessment anyway,” she advises.

When this isn’t checked, it might develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) whose effects are even deeper running.

The final and just as important step of support is giving hope. Tell them that all is not lost.

What can one expect thereafter? In an attempt to move on, some victims will feel a need to take control of their lives. For some, it might mean acquiring a weapon. Some will lean heavily on church.

 

Does it last?

The helplessness of being caught up in a gunfight is likely to leave someone on the edge. It’s natural to have that fear of getting caught up in all of that again.

How long does this last? While there are no hard statistics with regard to this recovery especially where there is terrorism, history in Kenya suggests that there is hope. While acts of terror are shattering, their effects do wear off.

Case in point, the 2013 attack on West Gate Mall where 67 lives were lost. The mall, which had been badly damaged, was refurbished and re-opened in 2015. When it was re-opened, many Kenyans lived and still do live in fear of such an attack but in defiance and solidarity, they streamed there to eat and shop.

 

What happens to the mind?

A 2015 French study titled The Great Fear of Terrorism acknowledges that acts of violence can be damaging to the mind. But almost always, individuals move on from it.

“People basically accept that there is a possibility and try and move on with their lives because there is no other way to live,” the study authors write.

The study, however, highlights the fact that time is not the only thing a victim of such a tragedy will need.

While some people take weeks to recover, others will take years. What causes this difference is the proximity to the attack and the kind of support and intervention they get thereafter.

 

TIPS TO HELP VICTIMS OF A TERROR ATTACK

Just be there physically.

Actively listen to them.

Stop texting and tweeting.

Listen to them.

Don’t force them to recount the events of the attack.

Let them share what they are ready to share.

Don’t assume that they are fine.

Get them a mental assessment.

Let them be free to feel the things they need to feel. There is no right way to feel or right way to behave after surviving a terror attack.

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