Whispering nervously in a hospital room, Dheeman Abdi, 16, explains why she is too frightened to venture outside onto the streets.
“There are too many people,” she says in an almost inaudible voice. “You don’t know who’s who any more. I don’t think anywhere outside is safe any more.”
For her sister, Fardosa, 17, the fear is even more terrible. When she heard a pen fall onto the floor of her hospital room, she went into a panic attack because she was convinced it was a gunshot. Her family has told visitors not to ask questions, and they’ve turned off the television to prevent her from seeing the news.
The two teenage Canadian sisters, recovering from grenade and gunshot wounds, are among hundreds of traumatized survivors of the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi. Like many, they will need counseling and emotional support for months to help them deal with the shock and horror of the bloody assault that killed at least 67 people.
Hospitals across Nairobi have set up counselling services and trauma units to help the survivors – especially young children and adolescents such as Dheeman and Fardosa. Many children have lost relatives or seen parents killed in front of them.
More than 700 people have already received counseling from one agency alone, but the need is believed to be far greater, and the Kenyan Red Cross is asking for more resources to help survivors heal their psychological wounds.
Fardosa Abdi, who suffered such serious injuries that she might be unable to walk, has told her family that she never wants to go into a mall again. “A teenager making that statement – imagine that,” said her aunt, Qisa Hassan. “She lived in the mall, and now she’s like, ‘I never want to go to the mall again.’”
When one visitor asked Fardosa about the Westgate attack, the medical staff in her hospital room could see the effect: she began crying, her anxiety rose, and her vital signs worsened. Her heart rate increased and her blood oxygen level dropped. “It gets chaotic, and we have the nurses and doctors running around, so we’ve completely stopped talking about it,” said Ms. Hassan, herself a nurse.
“We’ve informed everyone who visits not to ask what happened. We don’t talk about it.”
The two sisters, born and raised in Toronto but living in Nairobi for the past four years, were shopping at the Westgate mall last Saturday when the attackers stormed in with guns blazing, killing dozens of people in cold blood.
They rushed frantically to the rooftop, where scores of people were scrambling to climb over a tall locked gate into an exit area. But just as they were struggling to clamber over the gate, one or more of the attackers threw a grenade and opened fire with an assault rifle.
The grenade hit Fardosa on her right leg, causing severe injuries to her leg and lower body. Both sisters were wounded by the explosion and the bullets. Unable to move, they suffered two more hours of helpless terror on the roof before they were finally rescued.
Dheeman has now been discharged from hospital, with her hand heavily bandaged, but she is spending all her time with her sister and family in the hospital.
They want to return to Toronto, where they would feel safer, and where Fardosa might be able to receive more specialized care for her wounded legs. But while Canadian diplomatic officials have visited them to offer support, the officials told them that the government cannot provide financial assistance for a medical evacuation flight.