Regional and global leaders have expressed solidarity with Kenya following the grisly attack on a college in the country’s north-eastern region, killing 147 people, mainly students, an attack that Somali-based militants al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for.
Heavily armed attackers on Thursday morning stormed the Garissa University College, killing two security guards then storming the campus to lay a day-long siege on over 800 students.
“Our condolences for the lives lost in the Garissa attack. Rwanda stands in solidarity with Kenya and the region against terrorism,” said President Paul Kagame on his Twitter handle on Thursday night.
The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), an intergovernmental organisation of African countries in the African Great Lakes region, condemned the “cold-blooded act of terror” in Garissa.
“The ICGLR assures its support and solidarity to the government and people of Kenya during this terrible moment of desperation by terrorist elements to break Kenya’s resolve to support global anti-terrorism fight and the on-going AU stabilization mission in Somalia (Amisom),” reads an ICGLR statement.
With headquarters in Burundi, the ICGLR brings together 12 regional countries including Rwanda and Kenya.
Meanwhile, a statement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson in New York said: “The secretary-general reiterates his solidarity with the people and the Government of Kenya, as well as the continuing support of the United Nations to Kenya and the countries of the region in their efforts to prevent and counter terrorism and violent extremism.”
Unesco director-general Irina Bokova also condemned the incident, saying an attack on an institution of higher learning was a deliberate attack on the future of Kenya.
She called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, and extended her heartfelt condolences to the Government of Kenya, and to the students, faculty and families affected by the tragedy.
Washington condemns attack
US secretary of state John Kerry also issued a statement strongly condemning the barbaric attack.
“The United States strongly condemns al-Shabaab’s terrorist attack on Garissa University College in Kenya today. We extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the innocent victims who were killed in the attack,” reads part of Kerry’s presser.
“The US stands resolutely with the government and people of Kenya in the effort to end the scourge of terrorism.”
In what is seen as the worst al-Shabaab attack to date, four of the gunmen were eventually surrounded in a dormitory, and died when their suicide vests detonated.
A fifth gunman was reportedly arrested. Witnesses earlier said the militants singled out Christians and shot them.
More than 500 students managed to escape, and 79 were reportedly injured with some of the injured being airlifted to the capital Nairobi for treatment.
Nairobi says a man named Mohamed Kuno, a high-ranking al-Shabaab official, is the mastermind of the attack. He was a head teacher at an Islamic school in Garissa before he quit in 2007.
President Uhuru Kenyatta offered his condolences to the victims’ families and ordered “urgent steps” to ensure 10,000 police recruits whose enrolment is pending are trained immediately.
Kenyatta said: “This is a moment for everyone throughout the country to be vigilant as we continue to confront and defeat our enemies.”
Al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants killed 36 workers at a quarry last December, in the Mandera County, which is also located in north-eastern Kenya where they had a week earlier hijacked a bus and killed 28 passengers, mostly teachers.
North-eastern Kenya is most vulnerable because of its proximity to the restive Somalia, where the group is based.
In September 2013, the same group attacked Nairobi’s up market Westgate shopping mall, killing 67 people and wounding more than 175 others. All the gunmen in the attack were reportedly killed.
Survivors narrate chilling ordeals
The gunmen who killed 147 people in Kenya’s worst terrorist attack since 1998 ordered people to recite verses from the Koran at gunpoint to avoid being shot. They also told women that they were safe before gunning them down.
The men shouted ‘God is great’ as they shot and killed the unarmed civilians.
Reuben Mwavita saw three female students murdered in front of him. He said the gunmen forced them onto their knees and started to interrogate them.
He said: “The mistake they made was to say ‘Jesus, please save us,’ because that is when they were immediately shot.”
Susan Kitoko broke her hip after jumping from a window to avoid the gunmen said: “I was confused, I was terrified and was shaking, but I was not screaming and that is what saved me. The attackers were just in the next room, I heard them ask people whether they were Christian or Muslim, then I heard gunshots and screams.”
Tony Otiende and his friends also managed to escape through a window.
“There were many gunshots mixed with screams. I heard men shouting saying ‘We are al-Shabaab, we are al-Shabaab, we have paid you a visit tonight.’ Four of us in our cube ran and jumped through the window from the first floor and went through the barbed wire fence.”
Kenneth Luzakula was standing at the rear of the Christian prayer meeting when two gunmen burst into the room.
He told Reuters: “They killed all my friends. I was praying with them when we heard gunshots and two guys who wore hoods and carried rifles burst in. I escaped because I was standing next to the rear door. I heard gunshots from the toilet nearby where we hid.”
Elosy Karimi crawled into a space above her bunk into a void in the roof and hid from the gunmen. She said she heard the killers call for her friends to leave their rooms or else they would be killed.
Nasir Abdurahman, a second year student, said he came face-to-face with the killers just minutes into the attack. The gunman forced him and his friends to the ground and issued a chilling ultimatum.
Abdurahman told the Wall Street Journal: “One gunman ordered us to lay down on the ground, and we did that. He asked us are you Muslims and I responded ‘yes. Please don’t kill us.’
“He asked if we could recite the Shahada and I recited it loudly. My friends also recited the prayer loudly. He said: ‘You can go now’.”
Those who were unable to quote sections from the Koran were shot.
One woman claimed she hid under the bodies of two of her friends to avoid the attentions of the gunmen.
Titus was shot in the wrist and is recovering in hospital. She claimed the killers went straight to a lecture hall where Christians were holding an early morning prayer service to begin their attack.
Another student told the New York Times: “We heard gunshots and we were sleeping so it was about five. Guys started jumping up and down and running for their lives. But it’s unfortunate that where they were going to is where the gunshots were coming from.”
Other students said they fled for their lives naked as they did not have time to get dressed.
One survivor told Kenyan journalist Peter Opondo: “I took blood from my colleague who had been shot and smeared it on my face. When they came, they said this one is dead. The attackers were speaking perfect Kiswahili - like the one you would hear in the Coastal region of Kenya.”
Student Omar Ibrahim told News24 Kenya: “I was in a group that was saved by the KDF (Kenya Defence Forces) just after 1pm. We saw many many bodies, some did not have heads. I don’t know why someone would do such a thing.”
Eye-witness Collins Wetangula, a students leader, said he was preparing to take a shower when he heard gunshots coming from Tana dorm, which is home to both men and women, 150 yards away.
The campus has six hostels and at least 887 students, he said, adding that he locked himself and three roommates in their room.
“All I could hear were footsteps and gunshots, nobody was screaming because they thought this would lead the gunmen to know where they are. The gunmen were saying sisi ni al-Shabaab (Swaihi for ‘we are al-Shabaab’).”
Wetangula said he could hear the gunmen interrogating fellow students hiding inside their rooms about their religion.
The gunmen started to shoot rapidly and it was as if there was an exchange of fire, he said.
“The next thing, we saw people in military uniform through the window of the back of our rooms who identified themselves as the Kenyan military.”
The soldiers took him and about 20 others to safety. As they were running, al-Shabaab snipers on top of a three-storey building attempted to gun them down.
He added: “Bullets were whizzing past our heads; the soldiers told us to dive.”