ELDORET, Kenya — Sometimes Sandra Gituchu and Maria Njeri sit outside their rooms at Moi University and plan escape routes in case they have to flee another terror attack.
Last April 2, they survived al-Shabaab’s bloody siege of Garissa University College in northeast Kenya, which killed more than 140 of their fellow students. Gituchu, 20, can barely sleep and recently stopped using alcohol and marijuana to blunt her memories. Njeri, 19, lost a roommate in the attack and has nightmares of something happening at her new school.
‘In the dream, my roommate and other tenants manage to jump over the fence and escape the terrorists while I couldn’t climb over and was shot on the back.’
Today they live among 650 survivors who have transferred to Moi, the parent school of Garissa. It’s located in the western city of Eldoret, far from Garissa and Kenya’s border with Somalia, the home base of al-Shabaab. All of the survivors at Moi are Christians like Gituchu and Njeri, afraid to return to the place where gunmen operating under a banner of Islamic fundamentalism singled out Christians for slaughter. The survivors say they hang together at their new school because they know those who didn’t experience the attack do not live in fear as they do.
“They do not understand what we feel, they do not know what we went through,” said Gituchu, who has been clean for barely a month after a year of dependence on drugs. “I stay awake for most of the night and so I pass time watching movies. When I finally sleep it is almost morning. It was better to be high than to be awake in bed.”
On Kenyan soil, the Garissa massacre is the most serious terror attack since the 1998 bomb blast that targeted the US Embassy, killing more than 250. The 2013 Westgate mall attack (67 dead), the 2014 Mpeketoni massacre near the coastal town of Lamu (more than 60 dead) and the 2014 Mandera bus attack (28 dead) are among the biggest attacks claimed by al-Shabaab.
Njeri said she also has nightmares of terror attacks, some of which end in her death. The last such dream was three weeks ago. Two terrorists kicked open the gate to their apartment block and started shooting their way toward her room.
“In the dream, my roommate and other tenants manage to jump over the fence and escape the terrorists while I couldn’t climb over and was shot on the back,” said Njeri, her gaze fixed on the floor of her room in deep thought. “It is then that I woke up in shock and started crying.”
The two friends regularly visit the the Grace Chapel on campus. They both rent one-room apartments near the Moi University gate, about 200 meters from the administration building. The complex, called “Stage,” is a congested settlement of a few thousand people. Stage has shops, cafes, bars and rental houses catering to the student population. As the university prepares to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the attack on Saturday, the survivors describe a culture of paranoia on campus as students try to cope with threats — real and imagined.
Last month, at least 20 students were injured jumping from the windows of their dorm rooms after an electrical failure caused a small explosion, creating mass panic about a possible al-Shabaab attack.
Njeri said she is now wary of Somalis on campus, wondering if they are members of al-Shabaab. She lives with a roommate, also a Garissa attack survivor, in a small room with a bed, a reading table and a small kitchen area. Now that special counseling that had been offered to survivors is over, Njeri seeks consolation from members of two WhatsApp groups. Some of the members are fellow students while others are trained counsellors.
“I joined a group called Happy Family which we formed while at Kenyatta National Hospital undergoing treatment and counseling,” Njeri said. “When I post what I have dreamt on the group, members comfort me, some tell me, ‘Just pray Maria, and talk to us and all will be well.’”
John Omwango, 22, also rediscovered his faith in Eldoret after losing his best friend in the Garissa attack.
He recalled the way a somber mood hung heavily over the nearby army barracks in January as dignitaries attending memorial Mass rose one after another to pay their respects to Kenyan soldiers killed by Al Shabaab in Somalia. The attack was one of the deadliest since the Kenyan military crossed the border in pursuit of al-Shabaab in 2011. The exact number of soldiers killed in the attack has never been officially released.
But Kenya’s defense secretary Raychelle Omamo said that the El-Adde camp overrun by al-Shabaab was a company-size barracks with between 80 and 250 soldiers. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud estimated that at least 180 Kenyan soldiers died in the attack.
The student choir from Moi University sang mournful numbers at the Mass, offering consolation through song. Omwango said he joined the choir immediately after transferring to Moi last May, also vowing that he would never again miss Mass.
Born and raised in a strict Catholic family, Omwango did not attend Mass regularly at Garissa. He said that the attack made him a devout Catholic again, wanting something that could keep him from obsessing about his friend and the others who died at Garissa.
“Singing in the university choir is like therapy and singing at that requiem Mass was important for me too,” he said. “Since the attack, I do not miss a single service. If I miss a church service now, I would feel that something is wrong,” he said. He believes God saved him from perishing at the hands of al-Shabaab which claimed many of his friends and classmates.
Despite a busy schedule on campus, Omwango still thinks about the friends he lost. Though he doesn’t get nightmares, their memory comes to mind at times when he is alone.
“I miss them all, I miss Faith, a close friend of mine who used to come to my room and I would accompany her as she went to fetch water at night. I miss Timothy. We played volleyball together,” he said.
Other survivors are still suffering from trauma in different ways.
“Just the other day, one of our colleagues wandered out of campus and disappeared for a couple of days without contact. He arrived by bodaboda (motorbike taxi) and couldn’t explain where he had been. He looked confused and it took him days to fully recover,” Omwango said.
When they reported to their new campus last year, all 650 survivors were given professional counseling for eight weeks. After that, they took their exams.
Omwango thinks that for some survivors, the counseling wasn’t enough. That’s part of the reason he signed up for training as a peer counsellor.
“Once I finish training, I will be providing counseling to fellow students and to students in schools around here. Sometimes the club organizes for trips out to conduct sessions in schools in the community around,” said Omwango.
Omwango is pursuing a bachelor of education degree. He, like the 19-year-old Njeri and 20-year-old Gituchu say the terror attack in Garissa and their subsequent transfer to Moi was a setback in their progress toward careers.
Njeri had hoped to finish her studies in commerce and find a job as an accountant in Garissa where she said there isn’t much competition as compared to the other parts of Kenya. “Garissa University College is the only university in northern Kenya and getting a job there would have been easier. Here we are thousands graduating every year and getting a job will be difficult,” she said.
Gituchu, a computer science student, has lost one year already waiting for her grades to be sent from Garissa University so that she can continue to her next semester. The delay has her thinking of changing her course altogether.
“Most of our lecturers also left Garissa University College and therefore my course marks are missing,” she said. “I am currently taking accounting courses as I wait but my patience is almost finished.”
Worries about completing their degrees and preparing for a career are only compounded by events like the one in October, when there was a terror threat at Moi.
This happened after it was discovered that four students who went missing at the university in September had been recruited into al-Shabaab. Students feared that the recruited students may be planning to attack the campus.
Njeri and Gituchu believe that the threat wasn’t treated with the seriousness it deserved.
“At the main gate, only those getting out of the university have their luggage checked as they leave but not when coming in. It is scary because a terrorist can easily get in,” Njeri said.
Even now, only the main gate to the university is manned while the two other roads that lead into and out of the university remain unguarded. No personnel deployed to conduct security checks on people coming into the university, the students say.
Dr. John Ayieko, dean of Moi University, declined to comment on security measures at the school.
When the two young women go to sleep, they lock their doors with a padlock. They say they feel that measure, along with prayer, are their only forms of security.
In front of their apartments at the Stage complex is a barbed-wire fence which serves as a boundary between the property and the next parcel, which is undeveloped. Njeri and Gituchu have often talked about how they’d scale that fence in case of attack.
“Not a single day passes without us talking about this fence,” said Njeri. “About how we will scale it if we have to.”
This story was produced by The GroundTruth Project with support from the International Center for Journalists, the Henry Luce Foundation and the Ford Foundation.