Year after Westgate, Kenyans still in anguish

Mother of two who lost husband in the deadly siege on Westgate mall still struggles with anguish.

Charity Irungu, 43, reads a message she wrote in a remembrance book [Mohammed Yusuf/Al Jazeera]
Charity Irungu, 43, reads a message she wrote in a remembrance book [Mohammed Yusuf/Al Jazeera]

Nairobi, Kenya – Charity Irungu’s life has been filled with gloom since her husband left home never to return. Poignant memories of the bullet-riddled body of the husband, Paul Mureithi, lying in a cold storage room at a morgue in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, are permanently etched in her mind.

It all started when al-Shabab, the armed group in neighbouring Somalia, laid siege to the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013, embarking on execution-style shootings.  

“I tried to call his phone as soon as I heard there was an attack at Westgate. He did not answer. In the wee hours … he called and told me he was fine. He was hiding somewhere in the mall. Then he hung up,” said the 43-year-old mother of two.

The desire to know Mureithi’s fate was too strong after that conversation. And it marked the beginning of a long and sad wait.

“I could not sleep. I spent much of my time around the mall to see if I will [sic] see him being carried out in a stretcher or being led to where the rescue workers were stationed. There was nothing coming,” Irungu told Al Jazeera.

At home, everything was cold and gloomy, said Irungu. The two children had lost a father; the family had been robbed of a bread winner. The warmth, laughter and love from their father was gone.

Mureithi, 59, was a driver and the attack – which al-Shabab said was carried out in retaliation for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia in 2011 – happened when he was on his regular routine. On the fateful day, shortly before the siege, he had taken his employer, an American couple and their guests from the US, to the mall.

Last duty

That was his last duty. The American couple and their guests were among those rescued from the mall. Meanwhile, his family’s exhausting hunt for him was under way.

Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi reports from Nairobi on the security threat from al-Shabab

It was not until four days after the siege that Irungu received the devastating call.

Mureithi’s body was at the Nairobi City Mortuary, where all those killed in Kenya’s deadliest  terror attack after the 1998 US embassy bombing were taken. Irungu said she told the caller, her brother-in-law: “You do not know him well. Let me come over and confirm if he is the one. I hung up and dashed over there.”

Irungu did not know what to expect. After arriving at the mortuary, she was in a state of shock. It was him. He had died from bullet wounds. By her own count, the body bore seven bullet marks: three to the chest, another three to the head and one in the eye.

Mureithi was one of 67 people killed at the mall during the four-day siege.

“Since that day there is darkness in our house. It is very hard to see that light even if it is there. I feel I am in a dark place,” Irungu told Al Jazeera.

She has been receiving trauma counselling to overcome the sad and painful memory of losing her husband of 19 years.

“I still visit a psychiatrist once in a while when I have money. It is expensive but whenever I can, I go for it. I love counselling because I find it easy and comfortable speaking to my counsellors. But still that bitterness and loss comes back. I am not that stable, but I am trying to cope,” she said.

As Kenya marks the first anniversary of the Westgate carnage, the most prominent part of the memorial has been the involvement of the counsellors to deal with the bereaved families’ anguish.

The focus is on those who survived; those who lost their loved ones and others who were affected by the events of that day.

I still visit a psychiatrist once in a while when I have money. It is expensive but whenever I can, I go for it. I love counselling because I find it easy and comfortable speaking to my counsellors.

- Charity Irungu, widow of Paul Mureithi

Oscar Githua, a psychologist, said human beings are known to be resilient. 

“We could see anything, but the problem with recovery is not about what you saw, but how you are able to bounce back from it,” he told Al Jazeera.  

Irungu and others who lost loved ones require at least 12 counselling sessions to cope. Those sessions are enough if done well and the patient is able to get back to some sort of normalcy, said Githua.

For Irungu, the psychologist says she is on the right track and seeking help is the way to a healing process even though it will take time.

“There are others who will go for drug substance thinking it will make them forget their pain. Yes, it will for a very short time,” but the sad feelings end up returning, said Githua, adding that those who freely speak about issues affecting them and seek help from counsellors, clerics and family members feel better.

Counselling shunned

For others, however, like Karsan Rabadia, who was one of the first volunteers to help rescue the injured and survivors, counselling has not been a priority. He is not planning to go for it anytime soon.

“Since the attack I am not comfortable hanging around [the shopping mall]. I still remember all the blood I touched. All the people covered in blood I carried … and the faces of the shoppers who were running and did not know where to run to. I saw all that first hand, and it still has an affect on me. Once in a while I do have nightmares. I hope with time I will heal,” he told Al Jazeera.

Githua says volunteers go in to help and are often regarded as heroes, but when the dust settles, they are as affected as the real victims.

For the bereaved families, overcoming the anguish is possible, but they are never going to forget the deadly siege.

At a recent event to mark the anniversary, Irungu wrote a message of remembrance to her dear husband. “Your laughter will always be remembered in our hearts. Rest In Peace.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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