Teachers working in north-eastern Kenya demonstrated in February 2015, asking to be reassigned following the killing of 20 of their colleagues in an attack by Islamist militants.

Eleven people, almost all known to be Christians, were killed during an attack by the Islamist Al-Shabaab group on a bus in Kenya’s border region with Somalia on 6 December.

The militants forced the bus, owned by Medina Bus Company (which transports people and goods between Kenya’s capital Nairobi and north-east Kenya), to stop on a road between Katulo and Wagardud area in Wajir County. The gunmen ordered all passengers out of the bus and after checking what regions they were originally from, divided them in two groups, ‘locals’ and ‘non-locals’.

“The majority of the population in this region is Muslim. The non-locals had come from other parts of the country and they would definitely have been Christians,” Rev. Nicholas Mutua, a Roman Catholic priest in Garissa, told World Watch Monitor in a phone interview.

Of the 56 passengers, 11 turned out to be ‘non-locals’. They were told to lie on the ground face down and were shot at close range. The militants then ordered the bus to leave with the rest of the passengers.

Although earlier reports differed in the number of people allegedly killed in the attack, World Watch Monitor has since learned the number stands at 11.

Among them were eight security officers from Kenya’s Anti-Stock Theft Unit (ASTU):  Athanas Kiti, Enos Odhiambo, Kevin Mandela, Wisely Meli, Tikane Kasale and Francis Mbuvi. Emmanuel Barasa and Nathan Bett were reportedly missing, presumed dead. Also killed were Rodger Machuka, a medical practitioner, teacher Leonard Mukanda and another unnamed teacher.

The two teachers were evangelical Christians while the doctor belonged to an Africa Inland Church congregation, Morning Star News reported.

Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa, took responsibility for the attack, saying it had killed Kenyan “security agents and government employees”.

‘Devilish and sad’

After the attack, the driver of the bus took it to Katulo police station but he was later arrested, with a passenger – on suspicion of involvement in the attack. Before the attack, the unnamed passenger allegedly moved around the bus throughout the journey while speaking on his phone, a local source told World Watch Monitor.

According to police, the security officers were unarmed and were returning from leave, travelling back to their station in Elram in Mandera County. They had boarded the bus in Nairobi, reaching Wajir on Friday afternoon (6th December).

“Security forces are pursuing the killers and assure that the government will not relent in its ruthless crackdown on criminal elements- including suspected terrorists – in its solemn duty to safeguard lives,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta in a statement.

“We have lost …innocent lives of Kenyans. It is unfortunate that Al-Shabaab has perfected the art of killing innocent souls. It’s devilish and sad that their thirst for blood of innocent Kenyans still persists,” Mohammed Birik, north-eastern regional commissioner told The Star.

North-eastern Kenya’s population is largely ethnic Somali and Muslim; most are pastoralists, (or nomadic herders). For decades the region has remained underdeveloped with many of the vacancies in education, health and other government services filled by people from outside the region.

In October last year two Christian teachers were killed in a suspected Al-Shabaab attack on the house where they were staying in Mandera county, about one kilometre from the border with Somalia. Two other non-local teachers survived.

‘Militants are criminals’

Since 2011, when Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) rolled into Somalia to help in the fight against the militant group there, Al-Shabaab has stepped up attacks in Kenya – on government installations, public transport and churches across the region and in towns, including Garissa, Mombasa and Nairobi.

Al-Shabaab has been fighting since 2006 when it launched to overthrow the government in Somalia and replace it with one governed through Sharia (Islamic Law).

Its members have separated Christians from Muslims in the past before killing them.

In the Garissa University College attack in April 2015, the militants divided the students into two groups before killing 143 people, mainly Christians. Survivor Reachel Ginkonyo told World Watch Monitor this year about how she was “the last one out alive”.

In November 2014, they killed 28 people in the same manner, mainly non-local teachers, travelling home for Christmas from the border town of Mandera. The attack saw non-local teachers flee the region. In December 2014, the group massacred 36 quarry workers near the town of Mandera. It referred to them as ‘Kenyan crusaders’.

However, at Christmas 2015, in a bus attack in which two non-locals died, Muslims on the bus spoke up to save others, saying “Kill us all together or leave them alone”. A film based on this incident titled “Watu Wote” (All of Us) was Oscar-nominated in 2018.

“I don’t consider their actions religious. The militants are criminals who are pretending to be Muslims. They want to ignite tensions between Christians and Muslims,” said Mutua, the Catholic priest in Garissa. “They are unlikely to succeed since we are in good interfaith relations with the Muslims,” he added.

The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) condemned the attack and urged Kenyan Muslims to shun the group and watch out for its divisive tactics.

Although the government says it has stepped up security in the north-east, some Christians working in the region are reluctant to travel home for Christmas over fears that they could be killed in an attack, some media reports say.