One year after al-Shabab killed 147 people in cold blood, the Kenyan government has turned its back on the university where it happened.
- By Nanjala NyabolaNanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya.
GARISSA, Kenya — At approximately 5:00 a.m. on April 2, 2015, Sister Evelyn Ingoshe heard what sounded like a series of pops coming from the distance outside Garissa’s Catholic cathedral. She knew instinctively that they were gunshots; this was not the first time this city in northeast Kenya had been wracked by violence. In 2012, militants tossed a pair of grenades into the grounds of the cathedral, injuring three people. Still, she could not have imagined the scale of the carnage that was then underway — or that it was ordinary students being targeted in the second-deadliest terrorist attack in independent Kenyan history. “It never occurred to me that it was coming from the university,” Ingoshe recalled. “But then the calls and the text messages started coming from the students, telling us to pray for them because they were being killed.”
One year after terrorists from the Somali militant group al-Shabab killed at least 147 Kenyans at Garissa University College (GUC), nearly a thousand people gathered on campus to mark the anniversary of the attack. It was a day of incongruous imagery and emotional dissonance. Survivors shared powerful testimonies at an intimate vigil while local politicians shamelessly pushed their platforms ahead of the 2017 elections. Students who made the painful trek back to Garissa tried to gain closure while a mobile phone company used the opportunity to try to sell phones. All the while, the physical scars of the attack — blood-stained walls that still haven’t been washed, broken glass and bullet holes that haven’t been repaired — loomed over the uneasy crowd.
It was a powerful reminder of how difficult it can be to mourn what you are still struggling to comprehend. One year on, there is little clarity about what happened during and after the attack — and even less in the way of closure for the community, which has faltered without meaningful government assistance. There has been no official inquest, no sustained interventions on behalf of the victims, and no efforts to help the broader community recover. On the contrary, the once-vibrant university town is now suffocating under a harsh military deployment that amounts to the government’s only real response to the tragedy.
This over-emphasis on security helps to explain why many important details of the attack remain shrouded in mystery. The government released information about the siege, its military response, and subsequent counterterrorism operations, but it paid little attention to the human dimension of the assault; it never even confirmed the number or identity of the victims. (Officials have used the oft-reported 147 figure to refer both to the number of student victims and the overall number of victims — which includes at least one security officer and the four attackers.) Nor is the commemorative plaque unveiled at the memorial over the weekend helpful. It features 148 names, but at least two of them are duplicates and another two are only first names. At least one victim, a student from the nearby teacher training college who was visiting her boyfriend at GUC on the day of the attack, does not appear on the plaque.
Also unaccounted for are at least 39 students who were among the 815 full-time students registered at GUC on April 2 of last year. After the attack, survivors were allowed to transfer to Garissa’s parent institution, Moi University, in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley region. But only 629 of them enrolled at Moi, instead of the 668 that would have been expected if we assume that 147 students were killed. (If we assume that only 142 of the 147 killed were students, then the number of missing students is 44.) Some of these students may have suffered grievous injuries that prevented them from immediately returning to university. For example, Rachael Munjiru was reportedly left paralyzed by the attack and has not resumed her studies. Could as many as 43 other students be living through similarly difficult circumstances? Is the victim tally much higher than reported?
Often in the wake of horrific terrorist attacks, nations rally around the affected communities. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing produced the “Boston Strong” slogan that was plastered on T-shirts and repeated by newscasters across the United States. The recent Islamic State attacks in Paris and Brussels gave rise to the “Je Suis Paris” and “Je Suis Bruxelles” memes that were shared widely. Not so after Garissa. Instead of riding a wave of popular support, GUC staff members spent nine months after the attack battling for the university’s survival.
The government initially shut GUC down indefinitely and then contemplated turning it into a security installation — neither of which elicited popular outcry in the rest of the country. Finally, in January 2016, GUC administrators won the right to reopen, but the college has not yet been fully reintegrated into the Kenyan public university system, meaning that it no longer receives government-subsidized students, a vital source of revenue and institutional support. (The 50 or so students who have enrolled since GUC reopened are all paying their own way.)
Nor have staff members received adequate psychological support following the massacre. The government authorized approximately $150,000 for a survivor’s fund, a paltry amount that works out to roughly $150 per person for both staff and students. After the money ran out, many counselors withdrew their services — some as soon as a month after they began work. Most GUC employees didn’t receive any counseling at all.
At the memorial event over the weekend, it was clear that staff members were still struggling to overcome the trauma they had experienced. Ahmed Warfa, the college principal, stopped to wipe tears from his eyes as he addressed the crowd. “I still wake up at 3:00 a.m. every day and remember what happened on that day,” he said. “These were not just 147 numbers. These were 147 people. These were our kids. I knew them. I talked with them. I spent seven days identifying bodies. I hope none of you ever live through that experience.” Later, the college gardener, who asked not to be named, looked shaken as he recalled his own experience last year. “On the day of the attack, I ran out of here with nothing on but a vest and my sleeping shorts, all the way to my house, almost three kilometers away. I couldn’t eat anything for a whole week. I didn’t leave my house at all for a month. Sometimes, when I’m here and I have to go down to the hostels, I can feel my heart racing.”
For students, the lack of psychological support has been equally debilitating. GUC initially used its own financial resources to support students who had transferred to Moi, but it quickly ran out of funds during its period of indeterminate status. As a result, former GUC students at Moi have struggled to cope. On March 21, a transformer on campus exploded, a fairly common occurrence in Kenya, where many electrical utilities are old and unpredictable. But panicked students, fearing another terrorist attack, leapt out of open dormitory windows — some three stories high — leaving at least 20 injured.
Apart from exploding transformers, former GUC students say they have been met with coldness and indifference from university administrators. Few adjustments have been made to ease their transition from Garissa, and they have been expected to keep pace with their peers at Moi despite having missed an average of two months of class. Because of scheduling discrepancies, this has meant taking five or six more courses than the average Moi student and fending for themselves when exam times conflict. “They haven’t even sorted out exam timetables,” said one student who asked to be identified as Noah. “So we all have three-hour exams that clash. When we complained to the university administration about it, they told us that our option was taking one-and-a-half hours for each paper, instead of the full three. Can you imagine doing a maths paper in one-and-a-half hours?”
Former GUC students at Moi also complain that the transfer has saddled them with financial problems. The German, Italian, and French governments promised almost 500 scholarships to fund transfer students from Garissa, but 229 of them have had their scholarship applications inexplicably rejected. Some students received money for living expenses but were told by administrators that their academic fees have not been paid. Similarly, while Gideon Moi, a member of the Kenyan Parliament and son of former President Daniel arap Moi, after whom the university is named, donated approximately $100,000 to support student expenses, GUC transfers say that none of this money has been disbursed.
Nearly 400 miles away in Garissa, secondary trauma remains endemic. Sister Ingoshe thinks that the entire town is probably traumatized given that most residents had at least some connection to the students who were killed. Without access to counseling, many have found refuge in faith — though often in unexpected ways. After staying on the phone with students she knew as they waited to die, trapped in dormitories during the attack, Ingoshe says her own Catholic faith has been tested. “You find yourself so discouraged sometimes. The work is hard. The weather is harsh. And there is very little support,” she said.
During a dinner for guests at the memorial event, a member of the kitchen staff who identified himself as Roba pointed to a large hole in the cafeteria window. “Do you see that hole?” he asked. “That hole was caused by a bullet meant for me. I saw them walking up toward the cafeteria entrance with their guns pointed. It was God who saved me.” He added that his Christian faith is now both stronger and weaker: stronger because God saved him, weaker because God allowed 20 students at morning bible study a few meters away to die so senselessly. When asked if he felt guilty that he had survived when the other students died, he paused for a moment and then said, “Every single day.”
Terrorists may have caused the initial harm to the community at GUC, but government failures have unnecessarily compounded it. In many ways, the memorial event was a fresh reminder of how hollow promises of state support have been. A commemorative plaque promised in August 2015 was finished just days before the anniversary, when it became apparent that the memorial would be a major media event. In the middle of the ceremony, tap water ran out because the bullet-ridden water tank has never been repaired.
Failure to address the needs of the Garissa community after the attack has left people here jaded, confused, and feeling abandoned. But there is a glimmer of hope for the future. Everyone I spoke to for this article was wholeheartedly committed to returning to Garissa and helping the town get back on its feet. “We all came back to work, even those who had resigned. We are all here because we love this job and this town,” said Roba. Even Noah, who witnessed the worst of the carnage and has struggled since transferring to Moi University, said he would come back to GUC if it began receiving government-subsidized students again. “I always knew I would come back. There are opportunities at this university and in this town that are not available anywhere else. These people really took care of us.”
Image credit: SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images