One year on, Kenya remembers attack on Garissa | Africa | DW | 01.04.2016
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One year on, Kenya remembers attack on Garissa

Al-Shabab militants attacked Kenya's Garissa University and killed more than 140 people on April 2 last year. As Kenya commemorates the dead, how are the survivors of the brutal attack coping today?

It's an eerie feeling walking here on the grounds of Garissa University, where more than 140 people were killed one year ago.

The Mount Elgon dormitory, which was attacked by al-Shabab militants, now lies deserted. There's a deafening silence in the hallways - the bullet holes are still visible in shattered window glass, frames and doors. You could hear a pin drop here.

Past the courtyard, where more than 80 lifeless bodies of students lay on the floor after the gunmen had hit, up a flight of stairs, there's a room on the highest floor that has been nailed shut. Peeping through the window, one can clearly see blood stains on the floor in the shape of a human body. Efforts to get the blood removed haven't been successful, a staff member of the university said.

Fresh start?

Parts of the school, which is located close to the border with Somalia, were renovated and repainted before the university reopened in January. Trees have been planted around the dormitory in memory of the students who lost their lives on April 2, 2015. The Mount Elgon dormitory has since been renamed "Ewaso Ngiro dormitory" to help students and staff move on.

A a student at Garissa University points to a bullet hole (photo: DW/A.Wasike)

Faisal Aden points to bullet holes at his dorm - he says the security situation has improved on campus after the attack

"I had so many friends who passed away during the attack, and we feel so bad about it," said 24-year old Sofia Noor Soiyan, a third-year student who survived the attack.

"We do remember them every day," she added. She was planning to attend the memorial service on Saturday - which marks the anniversary of the attack - to pay her respects.

Horror on campus

For most people, dealing with the aftermath of the attack is tough - even now, one year later.

Mohammed, who asked that his last name should not be used, says he still grapples with the memory of the horror on campus. "I have been having a hard time, since most of my friends were murdered in cold blood," he said.

Mohammed was lucky - he was sick that day and stayed with his parents.

"I could have been one of the people who were murdered because all of them at the dorm were killed."

"Whenever I enter the room, I see the images, blood," he added. "I am trying to cope." He said he is happy that security has increased on campus. He also hopes that more students will return to the university now that is has reopened.

Students and a lecturer in a classroom (photo: Imago/Xinhua)

Few students returned when the university reopened in January - some are now studying elsewhere, others are in therapy

Immediately after the attack, Garissa University was closed and most of the students were moved to Moi University on the other side of the country. Others stopped going to school altogether, because they were too traumatized, Garissa University Principal Ahmed Warfa told DW.

"Even today there are some who are undergoing counseling. It is not easy," he said. "Some of them got depressed, but right now most them have moved on and gone back to school."

Reliving the day of the attack

The principal says there isn't a single day when he doesn't relive the events of the attack. "I was supposed to go to the mosque and pray. Something told me not to go and I prayed at home. Then I heard the first bullet."

Garissa University Principal Ahmed Osman Warfa in his office (photo: DW/A.Wasike)

Garissa University Principal Ahmed Warfa can't shake off the memory of gunmen storming his university

Warfa's home is just a few steps away from the university's main gate. Today, sitting in his office, he vividly remembers the moment when the gunmen attacked.

"They came and passed through here," he said, pointing to the window to the main entrance.

"Then they went through the hallway. They heard Christian Union students praying on the left. That is where they shot the first 12 students."

Warfa believed that once the police and army came to the university that morning, they could put a stop to the killing. But he later realized he was terribly wrong.

"Instead of going in, the army was just shooting and shooting from a distance. It would have been easy for three or four men to just go in to rescue [the students], but they didn't do that," he said. "That really shocked me."

The Kenyan authorities were criticized for their slow response to the Garissa University attack, especially since the college is very close to a Kenyan military base - it's only 500 meters (546 yards) from the school to the base.

Increased security on campus

Today, security is tight on campus. A police station was set up inside, manned by 25 heavily armed police officers. They check every visitor who wants to pass through the main gate. But there's still a sense of nervousness in the air.

The Kenyan government has promised 300 million Kenyan shillings (2.6 million euros; $3 million) to build a wall around the school.

"The beefed-up security here on campus has changed the mood of the whole area," said Faisal Aden, a student at Garissa University. "In fact, the locals themselves are much aware that security is very tight."

A police officer mans his post at the Garissa University (photo: DW/A.Wasike)

Security has increased on campus - police now thoroughly check everyone who enters the premises

Aden said he initially didn't expect the school to be reopened after the attack. There was an exodus from Garissa after the gunmen hit - even businessmen and traders packed their bags and left. They did so because they feared for their lives - and because their only customers, the students, had gone.

Aden said he is glad to see new students have started to come to the university. Over 160 self-sponsored students are currently studying here.

"One year after the attack, Garissa University is healing - and it's coming back to how it used to be," he said.

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