The common narrative that has come out of the painful memories of last year's Westgate Mall terror attack on September 21, 2013 was that several brave police officers, reservists and KDF soldiers responded to a very grave situation. Many arrived at the mall without the faintest idea of the enormity of the task that awaited them.
But like the brave officers they were trained to be, they responded with bravery and tenacity. In the end, these heroes managed to rescue hundreds from the Al-Shabaab attackers who had descended on the mall and started firing indiscriminately at the shoppers and other people who were in the building.
The first group of armed officers was overwhelmed by what they saw. Dead bodies were strewn across the parking area and mall walkways. People were groaning in pain, nursing serious gunshot wounds needing urgent medical assistance. The real story of the security officers who entered the mall and fought with the attackers has not been told until now.
Many others complemented the rescue efforts. These include those who called for help on behalf of those who were trapped in the mall. These people indirectly helped by liaising with Red Cross workers and other sources of help.
Some of the officers who went into the mall to engage the terrorists carry deep physical and emotional wounds. Many bear the scars of battle like a badge of honour. One of them was shot 15 times and survived. Another has four bullet holes in his body. There are other officers like Lieutenant Joseph Mukoto Masulia of the elite Kenya Defence Forces Ranger Strike Force who paid the ultimate price.
As we commemorate the first anniversary since that tragic day, many of the officers –both civilian and uniformed – are yet to be rewarded for their bravery. We are, after all, a nation that adores and honours its heroes. We get excited when our athletes are the first to cross the finishing line – as is often the case – at international meetings. We leap with excitement when our artistes are honoured with coveted prizes locally and abroad. Yet our heroes who sacrifice their lives at home are forgotten or ignored.
The story of our freedom fighters who went into the forests and fought the British colonialists still rankles. Many of them are still waiting to be honoured. Being a police officer, a soldier or a police reservist can sometimes feel like a thankless job. The police service is often associated with brutality, corruption, incompetence and low morale. In spite of the poor image, there are many officers who excel and uphold the virtues of public service as encapsulated by the police motto – Utumishi kwa wote.
To write a new chapter, we must look into the plight of the officers who risked their lives to save hundreds at Westgate that day. A reward or State recognition, a medal for valour or even a promotion would lift the morale of the security teams.
Granted, the Westgate siege had its own underside. It exposed the divisions and lack of coordination among the various armed forces, which led to the death of some officers reportedly from friendly fire. But looking back one year later,it is fitting that we look at the tragic event in the perspective that all those who put their lives on the line meant well. They put their own safety on the line for the sake of others and for the sake of the country. That, in a word, is patriotism in action.
We need to celebrate them all as they exhibited leadership and courage. Indeed, it would inspire young officers to realise that courage and bravery are essential ingredients to rising up the ranks of the uniformed forces.