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Kenya: Garissa survivors share their stories; Fears rise as anniversary approaches

31 March 2017

Two Christian students who survived the al-Shabaab attack on Kenya's Garissa University on 2 April 2015 have spoken to anti-persecution charity Open Doors about their experience as the two year anniversary approaches.

Frederick Gitonga (22), the former chairman of the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS), and Christian student, Margaret*, each narrowly missed being killed that day at the students' daily prayer meeting - the first place the al-Shabaab militants attacked. All 22 students who had gathered to pray there were killed, but that morning Frederick and Margret both uncharacteristically missed the meeting.

Frederick woke to the sound of gunfire in the nearby prayer room. With no way out, Frederick hid under his bed. Then some of the attackers came into his room. He said, "I cannot explain what happened to me, I couldn't tell if I was dead, I couldn't tell if I was asleep, but I lay still for hours."

Meanwhile, Margaret pushed her way through the panicked students in the hallway and found cover under her bed. There she lay with her roommates for hours, deadly silent.

At around midday, she heard the attackers call from the central court of the building: "You are asking who we are. We are al-Shabaab. We have come. Let us see who will win the game. We can see where you are hiding. Come out if you want to save your life!" Margaret and her companions decided to remain in hiding. They knew they made the right choice when they heard those who obeyed being killed.

A matter of life and death

"In the end it was an exam," recalled Frederick. "If you wanted to pass, you would say you are a Muslim. If you failed, you are shot dead. If you are a Muslim, your life was safe."

Some of the Muslim students tried to protect the Christian students by saying they were Muslims, but if they couldn't recite parts of the Quran, they were killed on the spot.

Eight hours later, at around 1pm, the Kenya Defense Force arrived and Frederick and the other students were rescued. However, the trauma didn't end there. Tragically, 147 students were killed, and a further 104 were injured, many with long-term injuries.

Frederick went to the hospital to visit the injured students and to the morgue to help identify the bodies in the days that followed. He remembered: "It was very, very painful indeed. I decided I must try to attend some funerals and say goodbye to some of the friends. After that I had a few days to visit my family, then I went back to Nairobi trying to contact those who survived so that I could arrange their counselling."

For Margaret, the distressing sight of seeing her closest friend, Aquila, dead in the attack's aftermath was overwhelming. "When I saw the body of another friend, Beatrice, I went a little mad," she said.

Margaret received government-sponsored trauma counselling. Though it was a difficult process, she learned techniques that helped her get past the initial shock and begin healing. She was also greatly encouraged by spiritual support from her pastor from Garissa and Frederick, both of whom visited her. "I thought, wow, this is the love of Christ, that they came all the way from Garissa to visit me," said Margaret.

In the aftermath of the attack, local partners of Open Doors visited Garissa to encourage Christians there, as well as visiting Nairobi to do what they could to support family members searching for loved ones among the victims.

Fears as two-year anniversary approaches

As the second anniversary approaches students and victims of the attack will be marking the occasion both at Moi University, Eldoret, in which the surviving students were incorporated, and in Garissa University, which reopened its doors last September. "The number of non-Muslim students willing to study in Garissa is very small," explained a staff member there. "This is because fear remains high and Garissa is not considered safe... With the memorial day coming, many are looking anxious and worried."

Tensions rise in northern Kenya

In Garissa, the already tense atmosphere has been exacerbated by news that the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) killed 31 al-Shabaab fighters in a recent attack on two of their bases in Jubbaland, Somalia.

"Fear is gripping non-Muslims in Garissa as we near the second anniversary of the massacre because rumours are spreading that al-Shabaab are preparing to avenge their fallen brothers killed in the KDF attack," said a local pastor. "The church in this area remains the 'softest' target and Christians are calling for prayers."

With the onset of drought and famine in Kenya, it is not only from al-Shabaab that Christians are facing difficulties. The pastor continued: "Christians in Garissa continue to face discrimination. This is not only in employment. Currently there is widespread drought in north Kenya, forcing the government to send in food aid. However, non-Muslims are told the food is strictly for locals - Muslims - and that non-locals must access their share from their home counties."

Frederick has asked the global church to continue to pray for Kenya. "We are one body, although we are separated by geography. We need to support one another. Pray for the church in Kenya because they are becoming one of the main targets. Pray for the survivors, for a speedy recovery. Pray that they will hold onto the faith and keep the fire of the gospel burning. Pray for those who are still dealing with the trauma. Remember the families who lost their children. Pray for me."

Persecution in Kenya

Kenya is number 18 on the Open Doors World Watch List 2017. For the third year in a row, violence against Christians increased last year. Though the majority of Kenyans are Christian, in the northeastern border and coastal regions where Islam is dominant, Christians are a target for radical Islamic groups. Somali-based al-Shabaab militants are infamous for crossing into Kenya and raiding towns or attacking buses.

Open Doors has been working in Kenya through local partners and churches since the early 2000s, offering support to churches in the volatile northeastern border and coastal regions. Open Doors assists local Churches and partners in cross-cultural evangelism and discipleship training, economic empowerment, leadership training and trauma care training.

*Name changed for security reasons

Source: Open Doors

Please pray:

  • For all the survivors of the attack, that they would be comforted
  • For protection over the memorial events, that they would not be targeted by al-Shabaab
  • For peace and stability in northern Kenya.

More News from Kenya:

Find out more about persecution in Kenya.