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Embracing life a decade after trauma of mall attack

Survivor: Joanne Ball-Burgess (Photograph supplied)

Ten years on from the Westgate mall attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, Joanne Ball-Burgess is “full of gratitude” in sharing her account of survival and persevering through trauma.

Thursday marked the ten-year anniversary of the massacre, in which the Bermudian woman, then a resident of the Kenyan capital with her family, was caught up in the terrorist rampage that claimed 71 lives and left hundreds injured.

“It’s important to share my story,” Ms Ball-Burgess told The Royal Gazette.

“It seems a bit far-removed from what we might experience in Bermuda, but the crux is that no matter what we face, there is trauma that happens every day.

“I want to let people know that there is hope and that life is still OK. I am full of gratitude, no matter what, and that’s why I am happy to share my story.”

Four masked gunmen from the Somalia-based Al-Shabab terrorist organisation targeted non-Muslims in the attack, throwing grenades and peppering the upscale mall with gunfire for hours in their battle with police.

Ms Ball-Burgess hid with others for hours in a bathroom while the attack raged.

In their final bid for escape, the group sheltered in a cleaning closet as the shopping centre rang with screams and gunshots.

The dancer and author released her first book for adults in 2021, Dancing with Tired Feet, which includes a tribute to the woman who saved her life.

“It is an ode to the woman, who was cleaning the toilets, an unsung hero whose name I do not know, whose face I can’t remember.

“It was that lady who saved at least 20 lives, including mine, just because she knew where the back exit was.”

The knock on the bathroom door of the woman who saved them initially terrified the group, but Ms Ball-Burgess said they had to trust that someone knocking would not have been a terrorist, but a person seeking to bring help.

A friend of Ms Ball-Burgess who had gone with her that day and heard gunshots break out after she had entered the mall tried to go in after her, and witnessed people being gunned down by the attackers before she could crawl to safety.

In the aftermath, the two were reunited at a temple of the Jain religion from India, where members of the peace-loving religion helped survivors find one another.

It took days after the September 21, 2013 attack because Westgate shopping mall was declared secure.

“I have had a lot of time to think, process and go over what happened, and my response — the spaces of healing which I have been fortunate to access,” Ms Ball-Burgess said.

Along with her family’s support, she was helped in her recovery by a holistic therapy regimen, including focus on a simple diet.

A pall of smoke hung over Nairobi in the wake of the attacks, and Ms Ball-Burgess would encounter fellow survivors long after.

“Even years later, people would come up to me and say ‘hi’, and ask if I remembered them.”

She added: “Something people don’t think about is the deaths that came after.

“There was suicide — people that did not survive their own survivor’s guilt, or a taxi driver who took people to the mall and could not help feeling responsible.

“There were family members of people who died who could not continue living. People had problems with substance abuse.”

Ms Ball-Burgess said that when she returned to Nairobi last year, she was unable to look at Westgate mall, which has been rebuilt.

She refused to go anywhere near it.

During a visit two years ago, when she realised that her taxi driver had begun to drive towards the mall, she “literally started screaming”.

After she composed herself, the driver told her that others who had survived the attacks had reacted in the same manner.

Ms Ball-Burgess said writing her book, which is available on Amazon, had been “very cathartic”, including reckoning with her own experience of survivor’s guilt.

“You think, why me? Why did I survive and others didn’t make it? What makes me special? Maybe I should have gone with them.

“You have to live with it. It’s a response to trauma after witnessing something like that.”

She added: “I want to say that I’m totally over it. Every now and then it still pops up in my mind.

“It has definitely changed me. I feel a lot more gratitude for life and the small things in life — the joy of putting my feet in the grass and spending time with friends.”

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Published September 25, 2023 at 7:51 am (Updated September 25, 2023 at 7:42 am)

Embracing life a decade after trauma of mall attack

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