GARISSA, Kenya — Survivors of a bloody college campus assault in this eastern city prepared to spend a second night in tents at a makeshift camp on the city’s airstrip waiting to be bused home, as rescuers removed bodies of students from dormitories on Friday and airlifted injured survivors to the capital city of Nairobi.
But as survivors were dealing overwhelming losses, Somali militants reportedly issued a message Saturday threatening Kenya with more attacks. They said the campus assault was retaliation for Kenya’s military actions in Somalia and treatment of Muslims, according to Reuters.
As the first 20 bodies airlifted from the campus of Garissa University College arrived at Nairobi’s Chiromo Mortuary Friday morning, screaming and crying relatives of victims lined up to identify bodies at a different makeshift facilty in a downtown stadium. A manifest posted there listed students who survived the attack and those who did not. Some anguished and angry relatives confirmed what they already knew, while others waited in lines to identify remains.
The Thursday massacre — carried out by Islamic extremists who slaughtered 148 people as they shouted “God is great” — appeared to have been planned extensively, even targeting a site where Christians had gone to pray, survivors said Friday.
More than 500 students were rescued after Islamist militants, heavily armed and strapped with explosives, attacked the campus, shooting some young people and taking others hostage. At least 79 people were injured, according to Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Center.
Among the survivors was Mary Irungu, who said she left her dormitory just before dawn to fetch water. Then gunshots rang out directly behind her, she said, and she knew immediately that al-Shabab had made it to Garissa.
“They were shooting at me from behind, and I froze; I was unable to think,” the college freshman said in an interview at a camp in Garissa for massacre survivors. Then, she said, she dropped her bucket and ran, looking over her shoulder to see two men shooting at her.
As the bullets flew, she barreled toward the school cafeteria, reaching the doors in time to slam them and turn the lock. Inside, she found seven cooks cowering in the kitchen. She could hear gunfire from inside the dormitories and the cries of her fellow students.
“It was horrific, traumatizing,” Irungu said. “I was scared for myself and for my friends who were still in the dormitories. . . . We didn’t know what was happening . . . and I didn’t know if the next moment would bring death.”
After almost an hour, Irungu said, she was rescued by police officers, who escorted her out through the school’s main gate, where the attackers had killed two security guards.
She was loaded into an ambulance and saw a close friend lying on the floor with blood streaming out of two bullet wounds in her legs. The friend was later airlifted to Nairobi, and Irungu has not heard from her since.
Another friend, Monicah Vundi, also a first-year student, managed to escape from one of the dorms and fled across the campus. “It was like the bullets were following me,” she said. “I knew I had to get out.” She clambered up a fence, which she estimated at more than twice her height, shredding her palm against the looped barbed wire at the top and tumbling to the other side.
Another Garissa University College student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears for his safety, said the dormitory floors were littered with casualties, most of them having suffered bullet wounds. Injured students were being airlifted to Nairobi because of poor facilities at the Garissa hospital. “This is a hospital just in name,” the student said.
Reached by telephone, he said many of his fellow students hid in closets when the Islamist gunmen attacked. He said students cowered in the closets all night and emerged Friday morning.
A spokesman for Doctors Without Borders said many of the students were suffering from shock.
Reflecting on her ordeal, Irungu said she was grateful to be alive and challenged to make something of herself. “I want to take life more seriously because most of my friends are gone from that day,” she said. “It was traumatizing. Friends you were so close to — and then they died a horrific death.”
For many surviving students, grief played out online on Facebook and other Web sites. “Please where is Daisy Aching, Martha, Lydia, someone to reply,” wrote one student to fellow members of the Garissa University New Comrades Forum. A stream of comments followed from other students also looking for their friends, and then the news that Lydia was among the dead.
In Eastleigh, Nairobi’s predominantly Somali suburb, people steeled themselves for what they expect to be inevitable retaliation from Kenyan security forces. Residents said attacks such as the Garissa massacre usually result in the targeting of Kenya’s entire Somali community.
Mohamed Amin, a former member of parliament in Somalia, said that this, in turn, angers Somali youths in Kenya, driving them toward al-Shabab. “Al-Shabab’s tactic is to divide the community,” he said. If the security forces do not change course and “make friends” with the Muslim community, he said, “then many more al-Shabab supporters will come out. That’s why Kenyans should change the culture of harassment. They should take Somali civilians as their own civilians, not their enemies.”
The Garissa student reached by telephone echoed those tensions, expressing resentment toward the local Muslim population — most of Garissa’s inhabitants are Somalis — in the wake of the massacre. “The [Muslim] community here is hostile,” he said. “Most of the people killed are non-Muslims. There is no connection between the community and these people who have been killed. The community is happy with what happened.”
But at the main gate of Garissa University College on Friday evening, Muslims expressed sorrow over the killings. One group of young women had walked from their homes two hours away to see for themselves what had happened.
“Why is this happening in our country?” asked a Muslim high school student from a nearby village who gave her name as Najma. “Why are the terrorists killing people?”
Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud called Friday for strengthened cooperation between Kenyan and Somali security forces to combat Islamist militants, according to the BBC. He called the attack a “barbaric act.”
Hatcher reported from Nairobi.