A memorial service will be held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, today (9 April) to commemorate the 148 students killed by Al-Shabaab last week.
Kenyans are still in shock following the attack in the north-east of the country at Garissa University College on 2 April, where Christians were singled out and killed in the deadliest attack on Kenyan soil since the US Embassy bombings of 1998. (In Al-Shabaab’s September 2013 attack on Westgate Mall, the Nairobi shopping complex, 67 people were killed. There were also reports at that time that attackers asked whether victims were Christian or Muslim, but these were unable to be verified.)
Many of the families of the dead students had to travel to Nairobi and are still there, undergoing the distressing task of identifying the often badly disfigured bodies of loved ones, brought down from the north-east.
The identification of bodies has not proved straightforward due to the severe wounds sustained by victims of grenade explosions and the difficulty of preserving the bodies in the heat.
The father of one of the victims said he had been unable to identify the body of his son after three days of searching at the Chiromo Mortuary.
“I cannot find words,” added the dead student’s uncle. “We are speechless. For now we just want to find his body. But looking through the bodies to find any mark that would identify him is almost too painful … This is torture. May God help us find him!”
The college had about 800 students, of whom more than 500 were non-Muslims.
Around 200-250 students attended meetings of the Christian Union, which bring students together for worship, study of the Bible and leadership development.
“I cannot find words … This is torture. May God help us find him!”
Uncle of student
FOCUS Kenya, an organisation that works with students in 144 Christian Unions across the country, including the one at Garissa University College, is offering food, transport and accommodation to traumatised relatives.
George Ogalo, National Director of FOCUS Kenya, told World Watch Monitor that despite Al-Shabaab’s previous attacks, Kenyans didn’t expect one specifically targeting students.
“This is the first time we’ve had an attack that targets students in a university,” he said. “There was no anticipation from the general populace that this would happen in that setting. So there is anger and shock because this is the generation that is the future of the country. It was their prime time.”
Ogalo spoke of “shock and anger” amongst the Christian fraternity in Kenya at the “huge loss” and at the “apparent profiling” of Christians. One student witnessed this: “All of a sudden I saw them throw explosives… where the Christian Union members were praying”. About 22 students attending morning devotions were reported killed after grenades were lobbed into their makeshift chapel.
“We have to ask: what are the implications in the light of this new reality of terrorism,” Ogalo went on. “FOCUS Kenya was not prepared for this kind of disaster within the context in which we serve, and particularly that Christians can be killed while they are praying!”
On Easter Sunday, students at universities across Kenya held services and collected offerings to be distributed among those affected by the attack.
The Chairman of the Christian Union at Garissa University College, a survivor of the attack, will speak at the memorial service at the Christ is the Answer Church (CITAM) in Valley Road this afternoon.
Ogalo, while withholding the young man’s name, said that he is “coping well”.
“Yesterday two staff went and spoke with him. He is fine at the moment. Two of his roommates were killed and his other roommate was shot, but not fatally. But he is coping well. He is staying in Nairobi with his sister. We’re trying to be careful, so that we don’t overwhelm him – or go too fast with his healing process.”
Photographs of some of the students have been posted online and publicised on Twitter with the hashtag #147NotJustANumber, a reference to the original death toll. Graphic photographs of the bloodied and burned bodies of students have also appeared.
In the wake of the attacks, Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, declared three days of national mourning and promised to respond to the attack in the “severest way possible”.
On 6 April Kenyan fighter jets bombed Al-Shabaab bases in neighbouring Somalia, where the organisation is based.
After claiming responsibility for the Garissa attack as revenge for the presence of Kenyan forces in Somalia, Al-Shabaab promised further bloodshed, saying that “Kenyan cities will run red with blood”.
The Garissa attack needs to be seen in a wider context, said Gideon Para-Mallam, Regional Secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students for English and Portuguese Speaking Africa (IFES-EPSA).
Speaking to World Watch Monitor, he added: “This barbaric and gruesome attack on innocent students should be interpreted in the light of global jihad, with Al-Shabaab in East Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and their allies in Mali.
“When I listened to the testimonies of students in Kenya, it reminded me of Boko Haram’s massacre in Mubi College [in north-east Nigeria] in 2012. As in Kenya, the militants selected Christian students and slaughtered them in Mubi. Even Christian teachers were not spared.
“Terrorism is a real threat for the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. Both Christians and Muslims who do not believe in this kind of ideology of hate and destruction must unite and say no to terrorism.”
Kenya’s religious leaders – both Christian and Muslim – encouraged Kenyans during the Easter weekend not to allow the tragedy to divide the country along religious lines. More than 80 percent of Kenyans are Christian, although in north-eastern Kenya nearly 90 per cent are Muslim.
A number of Kenya’s celebrities have been outspoken in their condemnation of the attack, including Ciku Muriuki, a popular presenter on Nation FM, a leading radio station, who addressed a letter to Al-Shabaab.
In it, she likened the students’ death to that of Christ and expressed forgiveness for the attackers.
“I’m sad for [the students’] families who have to live with the loss, but I’m not sad for the students themselves. Theirs is a beautiful death,” she wrote. “I assume you [Al-Shabaab] deliberately chose the time because it is Easter. The time Christ laid down His life for us all, yes even for you.”