Four heavily armed Al-Shabaab militants stormed Garissa Univeristy College, shooting security guards, forcing their way into dormitories, and holding students hostage in what turned to be a 16-hour siege that killed 147 people.
In a method that mimics previous Al-Shabaab attacks, like last year’s Mpeketoni attack along Kenya’s coast and the attack on Westgate Mall, students claim they were separated according to faith. Where Muslims said they were let go, Christians were killed, often shot execution-style.
The attack occurred about 120 kilometers from the Somali border in a majority-Muslim region that is home to many Kenyan-Somalis. Al Shabaab is an Al-Qaida-linked militant group that says it carries out attacks in Kenya in retaliation against the Kenyan Defense Forces’ presence in Somalia since 2011.
In an audio message released shortly after the attack, Al-Shabaab accused the university, which attracts students from around the country, of being part of Kenya’s “plan to spread their Christianity and infidelity.”
On Good Friday, the day after the attack, Kenyans were attempting to make sense of the attack.
Those who had missing family members, were instructed to go to Nairobi’s largest mortuary, Chiromo Funeral Home, where almost a hundred of the dead were being held.
The search for Garissa’s dead began with a name, registering their missing loved one with the Red Cross. If they were lucky that name was already on a list, a list of survivors or a list of those who had been hospitalized.
For many, however, their child’s name was not, and they waited, watching the dead arrive by the vanload, and the students who were meant to be on their Easter holiday instead arrived to Nairobi in body bags, victims of the biggest terrorist attack on Kenya since the 1998 embassy bombings.
Francis Ochode left his home in Kitale in western Kenya the morning he heard of the attack, traveling almost 400 kilometers to reach Nairobi, and walking part of the way. Hopeful, he visited Kenyatta Hospital first, but his son was not there.
“So I had to come to the mortuary to see if he could be found here.”
Hundreds of people waited for the bodies to be prepared for viewing, given an unenviable space on a white plastic chair, instructed to wait until more bodies arrived at the mortuary. Many prepared for the worst.
“These are horrible actions and people need to learn to live with others,” Ochode said. “You send your child to university so he can learn how to interact with others, and then you are called to bury him.”
The attack wasn’t a total surprise. In an internal memo distributed throughout the University of Nairobi on March 25, Chief Security Officer W. M. Wahome warned of a possible terror threat and encouraged vigilance throughout the university.
“Intelligence reports indicate that the Al-Shabaab terror group is planning retaliatory attacks on vital installations in Nairobi including a major University,” it read.
Two days later the United Kingdom increased its warnings against Kenya.
In a speech to the nation following the attack, President Uhuru Kenyatta encouraged Kenyans to stay calm.
“I assure the nation that my government has undertaken appropriate deployment of the area and is fully in charge of the situation.” He added that he would immediately call in 10,000 police recruits.
Following the attacks, South African President Jacob Zuma, in a statement said that the country stood in solidarity with Kenya, saying “terrorism in any form and from whichever quarter, cannot be condoned.” The United States also reaffirmed its support of Kenya.
“The United States is providing assistance to the Kenyan Government, and we will continue to partner with them as well as with others in the region to take on the terrorist group al-Shabaab. The United States stands with the people of Kenya, who will not be intimidated by such cowardly attacks.”
Security has been increased in and around Kenya following the attacks. Still, a quiet tension runs through the Kenyan population.
“Students are worried about that it might happen again,” said Idris Muktar, a university student in Nairobi, “They are scared because they think the same tactics they used in Garissa could work here.”