Kenyans’ worst fear came true
College students had warned officials of weak security before campus massacre.
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.
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.”