Philip Ogola – the brave ‘Digital Humanitarian’ who ran towards the blasts and gunshots as everyone else ran away from Dusit Complex
Tuesday the 15th of January was to end like another normal day for Philip Ogola popularly known as ‘The Digital Humanitarian.’ He was home early eager to help the kids with their homework after a morning of conducting digital training at one of the companies in town. The quiet and tranquility of his house were only punctuated by the sounds of his boys running around the house. Then his phone started ringing.
The voices on the other end were frantic. He had seen a couple of tweets about a bank robbery in progress somewhere on Riverside Drive but had not paid much attention to it, this is Nairobi. These things happen. The first call was from a friend who works at one of the companies on 14 Riverside Drive.
“Ogolla please come and help us we are under attack, there has been a huge blast and now there are gunshots everywhere,” said the friend.
But as he was still speaking on phone to this particular friend someone else was calling asking for his help in finding out if her husband who worked at the Dusit Complex was okay. She could not reach him on his phone. Then there was a journalist friend who called seeking help in tracing several other people.
This was all within ten minutes since the attack began and Ogola was still in his house. No, it was, in fact, a terrorist attack and not a bank robbery. But why were these people calling him and how was he supposed to help?
He is not known as a digital humanitarian for no reason. Ogola has on several occasions used his digital skills for public good in cases of crisis such as accidents, disasters, and even terror attacks – in September 2013, he was among the first people to arrive at Westgate Shopping mall during a terror attack setting up a digital command center that would help link those trapped inside the building with rescue teams and their families. The attack lasted more than three days and when the guns became silent Ogola went through a difficult psychological breakdown.
More than five years later Ogola was being called back to action and as a good ‘digital soldier’ he did not think twice about it. Armed only with a laptop, a phone and charging cables for both he drove to the nearest Red Cross office, parked his car and jumped onto an ambulance headed to ‘ground zero.’
Ogola is a former Red Cross employee where he used to work with the digital communications team. His understanding of the organization’s processes and their familiarity with his work made it easier for him to volunteer his services to the rescue mission.
While in the ambulance driving towards the site of the attack, Ogola decided to set up a Whatsapp group. This group had the people who were sending him contacts of their loved ones they wanted information on, Red Cross staff, police officers involved in the rescue mission and people trapped inside the building whose contacts they had verified.
Ogola said the first thing he did when reaching ground zero was to set up a digital command center where he would filter social media posts about the attack and relay relevant information to the rescue teams.
“I have a digital tool which I used to filter all social media posts that were coming from this location. People trapped in the building were terrified and they were sharing posts asking for help. Most of them were even oblivious of the kind of danger they were exposing themselves to because even the terrorists could use that information and harm them. I identified those posts and communicated back to them through direct messages. I introduced myself to them to gain their trust as I sought to find more information about where they were and relay the same to the rescue teams,” explains Ogola.
He says he added up to 124 people in the Whatsapp group he created through the contacts he was getting from his communication with those who were asking for help on Twitter and Facebook.
“Most of these people were in groups of between ten to thirty. We would get all their contacts and add a couple to the Whatsapp group. We advised them to switch off their phones and only leave a few so that at any given time we would have someone to talk to. When one person was running low on battery someone else who had their phone turned off would be asked to switch theirs on,” he continued.
Through the Whatsapp group, Ogola would also update friends and relatives of those trapped on their status.
“They told us exactly where they were in the group and how many they are. We also gave them advice on things to do as the rescue teams worked on getting them out. At times when there were blasts or gunshots, we would explain to them exactly what was happening – whether it was police officers detonating grenades laid by the attackers or officers engaging the attackers.”
The night was a long one, but each time a group was rescued it gave him and the other teams more drive to continue until the last person was out.
“It was stressing, at times families would be asking for information about their loved ones and you are still not in a position to locate them or deliver the information they are hoping for. When we had groups of those rescued coming out and thanking us or giving us a hug it encouraged me to press on.”
He says the hardest part of the night was breaking to those following up with him for information on their loved ones that the people they were looking for did not make it.
“Not all the people we were trying to trace made it out alive,” he says then pauses for a couple of seconds.
I could hear his breath on the other side of the phone line getting heavier, you could tell from his voice that he was struggling to control his emotions. I apologize for making him relive this moment.
“I remember there was one woman who kept asking about her son. I had known by then that he had died but I did not know how to break it to them so I bought time, sending them round in circles till morning when I directed them to the psychosocial support team. I did not know how to break it to them.”
That though would not save him from dealing with them after.
“The guy was Luo and I think the mum recognized my last name and knew I was Luo to. She came back to me and spoke in Luo asking me how come we could not save his son. I have never felt so helpless,” he says.
Ogola spent more than 18 hours at the site, by the time he was done his feet were swollen, he could not wear his shoes anymore. He was exhausted both physically and mentally. He was also hungry – all this while he had not had a proper meal. He says he had to walk to Chiromo Funeral Home to get an ambulance that could take him back to the Red Cross office to pick his car and go get something to eat.
When I first reached out to him on Friday about this story Ogola was on his way to a therapy session. It would be the third one since Wednesday. He had decided to go for therapy this time after experiencing a breakdown following his involvement in the rescue mission at Westgate. He says he sunk into depression, drunk too much and even became suicidal.
“I would scream in the middle of the night. I had dreams of gunshots and explosions. At times I smelled blood and dead bodies. I could not drive for weeks. I did not want to go through that experience again, that’s why I am for therapy.”
Ogola is happy that many people were rescued this time around and appreciates the response from the police and emergency crews. He, however, believes that authorities should also include a digital response strategy having seen firsthand how effective it is as a tool for both information dissemination and rescue efforts coordination is as a tool.
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