How to survive during and after an attack-Do’s and Don’ts


As the dust settles on the events of last weekend, where the Westgate shopping mall was held hostage by a number of people, we must turn to the business of moving forward.

1, 000 people were rescued and 175 survived with injuries, but almost everyone in the country watching the four-day siege unfold in the media felt powerless; powerless to help stop what was going on at the mall, and powerless to protect themselves from another such unpredictable attack if, God forbid, it ever happened again.

The attackers forced their way into the mall on Saturday and opened fire on shoppers, killing people on the spot. They also lobbed grenades.

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Because the attack took place on a Saturday morning at a mall, there were countless families there – children attending a cooking competition, others accompanying their parents on shopping excursions and yet others dropped off at a play gym on the fourth floor while their parents went about their business. Any parent will tell you that while it is terrifying to be in such a position, it is almost paralyzing to think about being caught in this situation with your child.

Don’t let the terrorists win

We recognise and understand the pain and the fear of this ever happening again in future. But we also know that we cannot live in fear, and that we must continue with our lives because to do anything else would be to let the terrorists win.

However, you do not have to feel like a sitting duck; here are a few tips you can utilize to help you feel a little bit more secure against any sort of aggression.

We spoke to security expert and Managing Director of Absolute Security Ltd, Sadik Makii, who offered us his tips on what to do in such a situation. “If you hear gunshots and you do not know where they are coming from,” he says, “the first thing to do is to lay flat on the ground. That way, you will not get caught in any crossfire.”

His instruction is corroborated by 15-year Raisah Virani, one of the contestants of the cooking competition. She was accompanied by her mother, her sister and her friend. Speaking to NTV, Raisah says they heard five explosions in the upper car park where the competition was going on, and then people started running towards them shouting instructions to lie on the ground, which she did.

“The people that were moving were the ones that were shot at or got caught in the cross fire. We lay still,” she recalls. Raisah and her friend were later rescued after laying still for an hour, and now she lives to tell the story.

According to Makii, “The next thing you should do is look for cover – a chair, a table, whatever will keep you covered while you assess the situation and figure out what is happening.” A number of hostages who survived the Westgate attack were those who ducked under whatever surface or cover they could find
Look for cover
Business man Andrew Munyua told NTV that he was at the security desk at the entrance when the terrorists struck. Initially, he thought it was a robbery at the bank but when the security guards who were screening him fell down dead, he threw himself on the ground. Lying low, he crawled out of sight of the attackers until he was rescued.

Ben Mulwa was driving into the mall when the chaos erupted. He noticed that the gunmen first targeted and shot at the security cubicles, then turned on those who were in their cars. He left his car and hid behind a flower bed in the parking lot until the gunfire subsided and he was rescued. He escaped with a graze on his arm.

Is it a good idea to play dead, just in case you can’t find good cover? Makii says, “You should stay still. If you noticed from the people who spoke, they said that the attackers were shooting anything that moved or made noise.”

East FM radio presenter Kamal Kaur had taken her son and daughter to the cookery competition when the attack happened. Speaking of her family’s terrifying escape on Twitter, she revealed how a bullet aimed at her son missed but ricocheted off a concrete wall and killed another child.

Then the attacker came at them with a big rifle and her eight-year-old son tried to push another child onto the floor.

Her daughter kept whispering to everybody around them, “Pretend you’re dead! Pretend you’re dead! He won’t shoot, pretend you’re dead.” The gun men stopped shooting at them and Kamal and her children managed to escape.

Assess the situation

It might sound counterintuitive, but the next step is the one that could make the difference between you saving your life and things going horribly wrong.

Makii says, “You must stay calm. The only way you will be able to assess what is going on, whether it is a robbery or an attack like this one, where it is coming from and which direction you need to go to avoid it, is if you stay calm.”

While the natural reaction is to run around screaming in panic, staying calm is the key to clarity of thought. Please remember that each situation is fluid, and it is impossible to say that one should run towards an exit or stay under cover indefinitely just because it worked in another situation.

Assessing the environment is the key to figuring out where the safety may be found.

Faith Wambua, a mother of two who appears covering her son and lying on the floor next to her daughter during the Westgate carnage, exemplifies this.

In a video showing their rescue, Faith and her two children lie on the floor pretending to be dead. The three of them continue with the act when a security officer tries to reach out to them, perhaps fearing that he may be one of the attackers. It takes him some time to convince them that he is a rescuer who has come to help them escape.

“Attackers like these ones run on adrenalin, and your fear, shouting, screaming and running around only fuels that adrenalin. Don’t fuel it,” Makii adds.

Most people will recommend not engaging with your attackers. Makii says that in order to do so, you need to be calm. “Be polite, don’t shout, be brave, but mostly, only do it if you have assessed the attackers and you think you have found one who will show some sympathy.”

Do not assume that because your attacker is a woman, that you can appeal to their nurturing or motherly side; some women don’t have that side.

Four-year-old Elliott Prior is one such lucky survivor of an encounter just like this one. According to an Agence France Presse (AFP) report, the boy, his sister and mother had been shopping at the mall when the attack happened.

His mother Amber, a 35-year-old advertising producer, narrated how she lay on her children, bleeding and urging them to be quiet when the attackers stormed the mall.

When the gun men gave the children present a chance to leave Amber took the risk and stood up with her children. Standing up for his wounded mother and sister, the boy bravely confronted one of the militants telling him, “You are a very bad man.”

Please forgive me, we are not monsters,” replied the militant, who gave the two children chocolate bars and allowed all three to leave safely.

Getting on with life

However, even after surviving such an attack, one must get on with the business of living, and it is impossible to do without taking care of one’s mental health.

The Kenya Association of Professional Counsellors (KAPC) deputy director Elias Gikundi says that as people come to terms with what happened, the importance of counseling cannot be over-emphasised.

“People are in shock and some can’t believe they survived; others lost their loved ones or are nursing injuries. Our focus is on helping them cope and to help them realise that they are not alone,” says Mr Gikundi.

He adds that the support the survivors and all those affected get from friends, family, counsellors and even employers makes the difference between recovering from the traumatic experience or suffering from a serious mental disturbance such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the American Psychiatrist Association website, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident, natural disaster or terrorism.

According to Dr Lukoye Atwoli, a psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine, this may manifest as flashbacks of the events during the attack (like hearing gun shots), nightmares, avoidance of anything that brings memory of the trauma or intense anxiety and a general disruption of their lives.

It may also trigger psychological problems or precipitate a mental illness.

Triumph over adversity

“It is normal to feel anger, disappointment, intense fear, sadness, grief, helplessness and other emotions, at this time. This can continue for a few weeks and most people are able to cope and move on without much disruption on their lives; but if it goes on longer than a month, one is at risk of depression and should seek help from a mental health professional,” he says.

One may also experience a disruption in sleep and suffer low appetite, low sense of security and despair and a sense of loss (death, property) – these are normal reactions caused by acute stress.

“But if immediately after experiencing such a traumatic event a survivor insists that she is fine, or you notice that they show no emotion, they are at risk of developing PTSD. Moreover if someone is suicidal or wants to be isolated, there is a bigger problem.

“Their social support system is crucial as it goes a long way to reassure them and reduce anxiety. What you can do to help as a relative or friend is to let them know that you are available to listen, that they are not a burden; cater for their immediate needs – food, water, ease their hurt. Also encourage them to talk, but don’t force them if they are not ready.

According to Dr Atwoli, in the end majority of people who go through a traumatic event are able to triumph over it and to continue with their normal lives after a while.

“Initially you might want to avoid anything that reminds you of the terror, but eventually, with the right support, you will be able to overcome that and move forward.”

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