Grieving families in Kenya speak of terrorism rumors before massacre

After Kenyan campus college massacre, survivors reunite with families

Peter Kinuthia’s battered Nokia beeped early Thursday: “Alshabab R killing us goodbye if we won’t make it I loved you all,” read the panicked message from his daughter, Salome.

The young student was trapped at Garissa University College, where at least 148 people died Thursday in an attack by the Somali Islamist militant group Shabab, whose gunmen targeted Christians on the multidenominational campus.

The devastated 70-year-old farmer called Salome back immediately. She sent another message, saying she couldn’t speak. When he called again half an hour later, the phone was off.

On Saturday morning, the anguished father was referring to his daughter in the past tense.

Kinuthia and his family searched a list of survivors Saturday, but they did not find her name. Then they went on to a morgue, and then another, until they looked at a body so badly smashed by bullets that they couldn’t be sure it was her.

“We had fear about her studying there,” he said about the town near the border with Somalia that has seen drive-by shootings and grenade attacks by the Shabab and similar extremist groups. “We discussed it,” he said. “But we thought she could start there for a year and transfer to another campus.”

Behind the morgue at the Chiromo funeral parlor in Nairobi, the keening of grieving mothers tore into an otherwise silent afternoon.

“Why? Why? Why? What happened?” wailed one woman, whose child had just been confirmed dead. She threw herself repeatedly onto the concrete floor as Kenyan Red Cross workers sought to provide support.

Another grieving woman crawled in circles and rolled on a lawn, shaking her head, her face filled with tears as she screamed out her pain. Another woman writhed, ripping out handfuls of lawn.

Grim-looking men with handkerchiefs stood by and wiped away tears.

The campus attack deeply shocked a nation that last year saw more than 150 people killed in terrorist attacks, the highest year’s toll since Kenya invaded Somalia to fight the Shabab in 2011. The killings Thursday resulted in the highest death toll in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy.

Stories of pitiless carnage have emerged, with accounts of gunmen bursting into a morning Christian prayer meeting where about 30 people had gathered and opening fire. Many of the students killed were female. There were accounts of desperate students smearing themselves with the blood of the dead, pretending to have been killed in attempts to fool the gunmen.

The Shabab issued new threats Saturday, warning that Kenyan cities would “run red with blood” in terrorist attacks, the SITE Intelligence Group reported.

“No amount of precaution or safety measures will be able to guarantee your safety, thwart another attack or prevent another bloodbath,” the statement read.

Though the Shabab has lost territory and seen commanders defect or be killed in U.S. drone strikes, its trademark tactic — sending a small number of suicidal militants against a civilian target — remains devastatingly effective.

Five gunmen reportedly carried out the attack. Four were killed, their bodies displayed by authorities Saturday in Garissa in the back of a white pickup truck, driven slowly through a crowded, open area, according to local news reports. Authorities said a fifth man was arrested trying to flee.

After the evacuation and indefinite closure of the school, students were transported by bus Saturday to a Nairobi stadium, where they were reunited with relatives on a rainy night.

Looking anxious and exhausted, the students took places in the stands as families corralled behind a fence cheered and shrieked with joy when they spotted their loved ones.

“My brother, my brother!” one girl shouted, nearly tripping, as she ran along a fence to get a better view. Some injured students wearing bandages had to be carried off the buses, some weeping. One young woman, reunited with her mother, clung to her, wailing and shaking.

One student, his arm in a makeshift sling, yelled in pain as soldiers carried him and put him in a chair, next to another with a bandaged knee. There were no ambulances in sight.

“Just call my brother. I’m tired of this. I’ve been waiting for an ambulance since Thursday,” the student with the injured knee shouted.

One survivor was found Saturday, two days after the attack. Cynthia Cheroitich, 19, said she hid in a wardrobe under clothes, even as some of her classmates obeyed demands by gunmen to come out of hiding, the Associated Press reported.

Kenya’s special police unit did not arrive at the scene until 11 hours after the dawn attack began, entering the dormitory where the gunmen were and killing them. Despite warnings of an attack on a university campus, only two police officers were guarding the school at the time of the assault.

Harriet Andole, 19, whose fate was not clear Saturday, managed to send out a text message to her mother, Frida Andole, 41, about two hours after the attack began: “Mum we’ve been invaded by Al Shabab in our school. Please pray for us.”

“Our main aim was for her to go and study,” her mother said Saturday. “We never thought anything like this would happen.

“I’d heard that there were threats, so that shows that if there was enough security, the attack would never have happened. But now it did happen, so that shows their failures.”

Many families said the atmosphere on the campus had become increasingly tense amid the rumors. Many students had reluctantly accepted places at the campus because they weren’t offered spots in other Kenyan colleges.

Harriet Andole’s aunt, Leah Mukhisa, had spoken to her by phone Tuesday. “She sounded disturbed. She told me she wasn’t happy being in that environment. It seemed she was scared.”

Ernest Irungi, waiting outside a morgue to look for his younger sister, Lucy, whose name was not on the list of survivors, said she had told him that some girls left the campus because of the threats.

“She said there were rumors that an attack was coming from months ago. The number of police was too small. That campus should have been guarded by 40 or 50 police, because everyone knows Al Shabab was there,” he said.

Lucy was the first member of the family to go to college. “I’m very, very angry because Al Shabab kill innocent people like my sister. She was cool. She was very, very clever. We have lost everything,” Irungi said.

Declaring three days of national mourning, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Saturday that his government would “respond in the fiercest way possible” to the Garissa attack and bring anyone involved to justice. He said five suspects had been arrested since Thursday.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

4:41 p.m.: This article has been updated with more interviews, information and comments from Kenya's president.

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