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In Kenya, fear and trauma haunt Garissa attack survivors

A candle-light vigil in Nairobi's Uhuru Park for Garissa victims
A candle-light vigil in Nairobi's Uhuru Park for Garissa victims Sonia ROLLEY/RFI

Hundreds of Kenyan students who survived the University of Garissa attack at the week-end are expected to pursue their studies. But psychologists fear it may be difficult to convince students to set foot on a campus ever again.


Garissa youths ran for their lives and witnessed fellow students lose theirs when Shebab gunmen targeted their university. And there are media reports that some now want to turn to farming, abandoning their dreams of higher education.

Many are in a state of shock after what they experienced last week. Psychologists expect some may develop PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder in coming weeks. Symptoms include nightmares, anxiety and hyper-vigilance -- PTSD victims feel constantly tense and "on guard."

"They will hear a car back-firing and think it's gunshots," explains Dr Gladys Mwiti, a clinical psychologist. "They are not able to sleep well because they are always on the watch."

Dr Mwiti, the chair of the Kenyan Psychological Association in Nairobi, heads a team that will be counselling Garissa survivors under the auspices of the Education and Health Ministries.

Although some survivors may be psychologically scarred, others are expected to show signs of resilience, a natural ability to heal or function normally. This capacity to recover from traumatic experiences rests notably on family bonds, spirituality and sense of purpose, research has established.

But resilience mainly depends on how close survivors were to dying -- and what they underwent in the year preceeding the traumatic experience. "The major determinant of resilience depends on what else was going on in their lives just before the attack," remarked Dr Mwiti.

There is little doubt that Garissa survivors who spent the night at the local airstrip after fleeing the campus underwent a harrowing experience.

Among those who were injured, many were reluctant to talk to doctors and nurses who were treating the injured at the Garissa airstrip, according to Dr Bashir Abdiweli, who coordinated the medical team sent by French NGO Doctors Without Borders.

"Most of them were not willing to speak about the events that happened," he said in a phone interview. "A few of them were very confused and they started crying when they started to narrate."

Treating the survivors for psychological wounds could re-ignite the debate on PTSD in Africa. Some experts have argued that it is a pseudo-diagnosis by UN agencies who medicalize consequences of conflict.

Yet a German study confirmed last month high levels of mental disorders among war-affected youths in Uganda. Similar findings were made among internally displaced Kenyans a decade ago.

The problem has become so widespread, fears Dr Mwiti, that it may have an impact on peace and development with trauma perpetuating violence in nations recovering from conflict.

"I’m very worried that the more loaded Africa becomes with PTSD, the less resilient we are going to be," she said."There is a relationship between traumatic stress and radicalisation. A victim that was not cared for in terms of getting rid of their PTSD eventually becomes a perpetrator."

The Kenyan Red Cross is also expected to set up a master plan to address grief counselling with the support of an Israeli NGO, IsraAID.

"What we usually do is sit with (partners) and try to understand from them what they're going through," said Shachar Zahavi, founding director of IsraAID. "We say: We've been doing this and this in Israel, and we're not sure that it fits you, but let us know what you need, what you are missing."


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