Kenyans’ worst fear came true

Col­lege stu­dents had warned of­fi­cials of weak se­cu­rity be­fore cam­pus massacre.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Robyn Dixon

KITEN­GELA, Kenya — As Stan­ley Muli hid in a wardrobe from at­tack­ing So­mali mil­i­tants last week, he won­dered why the Kenyan army was tak­ing so long to ar­rive.

For two hours af­ter the attack at 5:30 a.m. Thurs­day that left scores dead, no one came to the res­cue. Muli, lis­ten­ing to Shabab fighters search­ing rooms and killing ter­ri­fied Garissa Uni­ver­sity Col­lege stu­dents, thought bit­terly about how quickly the army had ar­rived in Novem­ber to bru­tally put down a stu­dent protest over the lack of uni­ver­sity se­cu­rity.

“I was just pray­ing to God that the [army] would come,” the 22-year-old said Sun­day. “I was just think­ing how come they have taken so long, be­cause the bar­racks are near.”

In Garissa, a town long known for ex­trem­ist at­tacks, the cam­pus of mainly Chris­tian stu­dents was an ob­vi­ous tar­get in a pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim area within strik­ing dis­tance of So­ma­lia, 90 miles away. Stu­dents said they felt un­safe and ex­posed — put in harm’s way by the gov­ern­ment it­self.

“We were fear­ing that if th­ese peo­ple [Shabab] came, they could kill many, many Chris­tians,” said Muli, who had been shot in the thigh but sur­vived in his hid­ing place. He said the gov­ern­ment “failed to pro­tect us. We are an­gry, be­cause we lost some of our best friends. We think, ‘How come se­cu­rity wasn’t there when we were at the uni­ver­sity?’ They took no care.”

In­au­gu­rated in 2011 as the first uni­ver­sity in north­east­ern Kenya, it didn’t have a full en­ter­ing class un­til 2013. Stu­dents said that al­most no one wanted to be there be­cause of Garissa’s se­cu­rity prob­lem, but that they were de­clined spots on the mother cam­pus, Moi Uni­ver­sity in El­doret. Most wanted to trans­fer but found it im­pos­si­ble.

“It’s like we were be­ing ex­per­i­mented on. When this uni­ver­sity was be­ing put in that place, I don’t think it

was the right place,” said Gideon Nyab­wengi, 19, who es­caped death by crouch­ing be­hind the low, half-built wall of a wash­room.

“When we went to that uni­ver­sity, we thought, what kind of uni­ver­sity is this? The lack of se­cu­rity was a ma­jor thing. When you got your let­ter of ad­mis­sion to Garissa, some peo­ple were say­ing it wasn’t safe to go. This thing was be­ing pre­dicted,” he said. Some of his friends told him he should get a gun if he was go­ing to study at Garissa. Oth­ers said they would pray for him.

When the attack ar­rived, it was piti­less.

Hid­ing, Nyab­weng i heard his best friend beg for his life, pre­tend­ing to be a Mus­lim. When the friend was un­able to re­cite an Is­lamic prayer, he was fa­tally shot, Nyab­wengi said.

“I heard them shout­ing, ‘We’ve come to kill and be killed.’ They would go and bring some stu­dents out of the dor­mi­to­ries and shoot them. [The stu­dents] were told to lie down, then I’d hear gun­shots, gun­shots and cry­ing.” In the three hours be­fore he es­caped, Shabab con­tin­ued killing unim­peded.

Stu­dents said Kenya’s army even­tu­ally sur­rounded the cam­pus but didn’t over­come Shabab or bring an end to the killings. A crack po­lice squad, the Gen­eral Ser­vice Unit, didn’t ar­rive un­til about 4:30 p.m., 11 hours af­ter the attack, ac­cord­ing to Kenyan news re­ports. The po­lice ended the siege 30 min­utes later.

Fu­ri­ous stu­dents and their par­ents ques­tion why the Garissa cam­pus was left so poorly guarded, es­pe­cially af­ter widely cir­cu­lated in­tel­li­gence warn­ings of an im­pend­ing attack on a uni­ver­sity. Stu­dents from a neigh­bor­ing teach­ers col­lege were sent home Tues­day, two days be­fore the attack, be­cause of the un­cer­tain se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion.

In Jan­uary 2013 and again in Septem­ber 2014, Garissa res­i­dents protested over in­se­cu­rity for non-in­dige­nous res­i­dents in the town af­ter many killings, in­clud­ing shoot­ings of ho­tel pa­trons.

In Novem­ber, stu­dents an­gry at the lack of se­cu­rity at Garissa Uni­ver­sity Col­lege held a strike and demon­stra­tion. They de­manded ex­tra po­lice guards and a fence. There were re­quests for the cam­pus to be re­lo­cated.

Although the fence was built, sur­vivors of Thurs­day’s attack said au­thor­i­ties failed to take the uni­ver­sity’s se­cu­rity prob­lem se­ri­ously enough.

Iron­i­cally, the high metal fence made it harder for some to es­cape. When Nyab­wengi tried to vault the fence, he fell back down at the first at­tempt and was shot in the arm. On the sec­ond ef­fort, he man­aged to get away. But he said that fe­male stu­dents had a harder time scal­ing the fence.

Nyab­wengi said he and many of his friends tried un­suc­cess­fully to get a trans­fer.

“You had to strug­gle, use a lot of money for a bribe, or you were just wast­ing your time.”

In­stead, stu­dents were told at ori­en­ta­tion that se­cu­rity came down to the in­di­vid­ual, with warn­ings that girls should avoid wear­ing miniskirts.

Nyab­wengi said res­i­dents on oc­ca­sion threw stones at fe­male stu­dents in the town, ap­par­ently be­cause they didn’t like the way they dressed. Muli said that at his ori­en­ta­tion last year, stu­dents were warned that lo­cal peo­ple had tried to strip a fe­male stu­dent for wear­ing a miniskirt.

When Shabab claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity Thurs­day for the attack, it said the uni­ver­sity was on Mus­lim land and was there to pro­mote “mis­sion­ary ac­tiv­i­ties and to spread de­viant ide­ol­ogy.”

Stu­dents said very few of their peers were Mus­lims and even fewer were mem­bers of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. There had been protests in town that few res­i­dents had landed jobs on the cam­pus.

There was also ten­sion over the pres­ence of a mosque on the cam­pus, used by the lo­cal com­mu­nity to pray. Stu­dents protested that those us­ing the mosque weren’t sub­ject to se­cu­rity checks. See­ing it as an added source of in­se­cu­rity, they called for it to be moved off cam­pus.

When the gun­men ar­rived, their first tar­get was an early-morn­ing Chris­tian prayer meet­ing. Of 29 stu­dents there, just seven sur­vived.

“We were pray­ing,” said Dun­can Ob­wamu, 25. “We were in a cir­cle in the room hold­ing hands.” First, the bar­rel of a gun ap­peared at the door. Then it fired, strik­ing a young woman lead­ing prayers. A Shabab gun­man stepped into the room and con­tin­ued fir­ing.

“He didn’t say any­thing, but you could see from the look on his face he was very happy,” he said. Ob­wamu, hit in the arm and shoul­der and cov­ered in the blood of other stu­dents, lay still as the gun­man kicked the bod­ies to be sure they were dead. “I heard him laugh as he com­mu­ni­cated with the oth­ers out­side. He was very happy about what he’d done.”

Muli’s fa­ther, Joseph Mwavu, 50, a ma­son, said he was un­happy when his son re­ceived an ad­mis­sion let­ter from Garissa Uni­ver­sity Col­lege, “be­cause the whole world knows that any­where near the So­mali bor­der is danger­ous.”

He said that if help had ar­rived ear­lier on the day of the attack, many stu­dents could have been saved.

“I’m very bit­ter be­cause [the gov­ern­ment] had all the in­for­ma­tion. They knew what was hap­pen­ing, but they took so many hours to re­spond,” Mwavu said.

Tony Karumba AFP/Getty Images

RED CROSS work­ers help a woman over­come at a fu­neral par­lor in Nairobi, Kenya, af­ter see­ing the body of a rel­a­tive killed by So­mali mil­i­tants. A sur­vivor said of an at­tacker, “He was very happy about what he’d done.”

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