‘If It Was Our Day To Die, We Would Rather Die Outside’

Published 8 years ago
‘If It Was Our Day To Die, We Would Rather Die Outside’

For many Kenyans, Thursday April 2 was meant to be a beautiful day. As with the Christian traditions, many of the Garissa University students were preparing for the long weekend. The Easter holidays would give them an opportunity to relax, away from the long hours in class. This was not to be. In the early hours of that fateful day, gunfire rang out. What followed was a near 15-hour siege – a massacre that left 147 people dead.

Hours into the attack, the Islamic insurgents, Al Shabaab, claimed responsibility.

Most of the dead were students, described by government officials and families as ‘the hope of our country’. Five service men too succumbed. Kenyan officials say four of the attackers were killed, while five Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers lost their lives. Six other suspects have been charged in court with the killings.

Tales from the survivors are chilling.

Cynthia Cherotich hid in her room as the militants swept through the corridors of the university.

“I had to drink body lotion to survive. I was thirsty,” she says.

“It was a terrible experience. We hid in the closet the entire period until we heard voices we thought were from the Kenya Defence Forces,” says another student, Mary Njeri.

“Still, we were not sure. So I asked my roommates, who we were hiding with, whether to go out and die or stay in the closet and still die there. She told me that if it was our day to die, we would rather die outside. When we got out, it was about 2.30PM. We met the KDF and they rescued us,” she says.

The students say there was a power failure the previous night. They thought the initial gun shots was the sound of an electrical fault. Soon after, the screams of the dying echoed throughout the building.

The attack, police investigations reveal, was planned well in advance with the help of some of the university’s non-teaching staff. Mohammed Abdirahim Abdullahi, the mastermind behind the attack, was a University of Nairobi law graduate and the son of a government chief from Mandera.

At the Chiromo Mortuary in Nairobi, where parents identified and collected bodies of their loved ones, grief filled every breath. They blame the Islamist militants and the Kenyan government.

The rescue mission for the students has been described as bungled. For close to 15 hours, the insurgents roamed the corridors of the institution. They herded the students in rooms and shot them.

Survivors had to answer questions about Islamic teachings to stay alive. Most of those killed were Christians.

An elite squad of the Kenyan police force joined late in the day and in less than half an hour, the siege was over. Interestingly, the cabinet secretary in charge of internal security and inspector general of police arrived at the scene hours before the elite squad.

The squad based in Nairobi arrived aboard two fixed-wing aircraft, while part of the contingent travelled 390 kilometers by road to the college. One of the police planes that should have been used for the rescue operation was in the coastal city of Mombasa to pick up a daughter in law of one of the police commandants.

This has led to the government taking some of the blame.

“Institutions of learning should be the safest place for our children. Now where do they turn to? Our government should have done better. All these lives could not have been lost if they acted on the intelligence,” says a family member of a student that was killed.

Five days before the Garissa attack, several alerts of possible Al Shabaab attacks in the country had been issued by embassies. On the eve of the attack, at the Diaspora Investment Conference in Nairobi, President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed the warnings and accused the embassies of economic sabotage.

“I have not heard the British issue travel advisories against other European capitals,” said Kenyatta. “We want to send a clear message that they will not intimidate us with these threats.”

In the face of the attack, Kenyatta cut a figure of a head of state in charge. Addressing the nation, the president ordered for the training of 10,000 service men and women whose recruitment was challenged in court. He said he would take responsibility. One week later, the executive order was rescinded and a fresh recruitment ordered.

Tellingly, in March, a number of Kenyan universities had put their students on high alert for a possible terror attack. The notices urged students to be vigilant within the institutions and co-operate with security agents regarding any suspicions.

The Garissa attack is the second deadliest terror attack on Kenyan soil. In 1998, the United States Embassy in Nairobi was bombed, killing over 200 people. The bombings were claimed by the then Osama bin Laden-led Al Qaeda terror group. The attack at Westgate Mall in 2013 resulted in the death of 67 people. In between, however, there have been several Al Shabaab-linked attacks on Kenyan soil.

Al Shabaab claims the attacks, and abduction of tourists along the Kenyan coastline, are retaliation for the KDF crossing the border into Somalia. Victims are told that Kenya will not know peace until its troops are withdrawn.

“We need to withdraw the troops from Somalia and have them pitch camp in the vicinity of the Wajir region [near the Somalian border]. Let them set up a combat base there,” says Andrew Frankline, Managing Director of Small Wars Advisory Services.

However, the government insists that the withdrawal of troops is as good as surrender.

Since October 2011, data indicate that Kenya has been attacked by Al Shaabab, or militants affiliated to it, more than 135 times. This translates to at least nine attacks every month. Government agencies report that it has resulted in over 400 deaths and over 1,000 injuries.

The attacks continue to ruin Kenya’s tourism industry.

“When we thought it could not get any worse it did. Tourism is suffering, it has been tough,” says Agatha Juma, Chief Executive Officer of Kenya Tourism Federation.

It might be a while before Kenya, and its economy, recovers.