One year on, survivors of Kenya university attack still live in fear

It has been a year since al-Shabaab Islamists attacked the campus of Garissa University College in eastern Kenya where Alex Kirui was staying, but the student still lives in fear.

"Sometimes it is hard to forget," Kirui says at Moi University in Eldoret, western Kenya, to which he and 649 other students were moved from the campus in Garissa.

"You just find yourself probably in Garissa through dreams. You find yourself manoeuvering through the corridors ... That thing is not going away from us."

The attack on April 2, 2015 claimed at least 148 lives, as well as those of the four attackers.

It was the deadliest by al-Shabaab in Kenya, where the group had previously killed at least 67 people at the Westgate shopping mall in the capital Nairobi in 2013.

The Islamists have targeted Kenya since it sent troops to help neighbouring Somalia combat them in 2011. Nearly 3,700 Kenyan troops currently form part of a 22,000-strong African Union contingent in the Horn of Africa country.

The terrorists stormed the campus in Garissa, gunning down students they identified as Christians because they could not recite verses from the Koran.

The siege ended after 16 hours when security forces killed the attackers.

The Garissa campus reopened in January, but it now has new students. The previous students will stay at Moi University in Eldoret, where many of them prefer to lodge off campus. The university dormitories with their faded brick walls and posters at the entrance awaken too many bad memories.

Second-year English literature student Dorine Okech recalls how she was hiding in a cupboard while the attackers searched her dormitory.

One of the gunmen "asked if there were other people in the room ... Elizabeth, my best friend, I honour her so much ... died as a martyr and never revealed that there were other people in the room," Okech says.

Paramilitary police are patrolling the campus in Eldoret, but that has done little to heal the trauma.

"Whenever I see a policeman with the type of gun ... that fired bullets into my legs, chills run through my spine," says survivor Evelyn Jepkemboi, who now walks on crutches.

"The students are still scared, and that is detrimental to their learning," says Josphat Telengech, head of a 24-hour counselling service that Moi University offers the students from Garissa.

Frederick Gitonga is among a handful of students queueing to be seen. He was leading a Christian prayer meeting on campus when the terrorists struck.

"I have forgiven the attackers, because they knew not what they were doing," Gitonga says fighting back tears.

The Kenyan security forces have been accused of only staging a late and botched response to the attack.

"I have great anger at the government. It was the government's fault that the people who died in Garissa did die. They took too long to contain four men with a whole army," Okech says.

Kenya pledged to step up security, and soldiers could be seen patrolling downtown Nairobi over the Easter period.

Human rights activists have also accused Kenya of abuses, including extra-judicial killings, in its crackdown on terrorism.

Nevertheless, 37 terrorist attacks have killed 76 people in the east African country since the attack in Garissa, according to the global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

The consultancy reports a gradual reduction of terrorist activity in Kenya, but attributes it partly to infighting within al-Shabaab and its strategy of prioritizing the consolidation of its position in Somalia.

"Grave deficiencies in security persist and it is not inconceivable that another attack on the scale of Garissa or Westgate could reoccur," says Ben Payton of Verisk Maplecroft.

Al-Shabaab meanwhile are targeting Kenyan troops in Somalia, where an attack on a Kenyan military base left up to 200 peacekeepers dead in January, according to Somali authorities.

Kenya - which has not given a death toll - responded to the strike by bombing al-Shabaab positions in Somalia.

The students in Eldoret, meanwhile, are struggling to rebuild their lives.

"I promised myself that I'll do the best I can to fulfill the dreams that we shared," says Okech, whose boyfriend was killed in the attack.

Last update: Thu, 31/03/2016 - 12:45
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