As narrated to:
My name is Doreen Bruno Karugi. I am 22 years old. On Thursday, 2nd April 2015, gunmen stormed our university from 5am. Official reports at the end of the day indicated that 148 people had been killed. The attack, it was said, was the deadliest in Kenya since the 1998 United States Embassy Bombings. I survived the massacre. This is my story of how I managed to escape, how I dealt with the loss of my loved ones, and my road to recovery.
I’d say it all started way back in August 2013, when news came that the then Joint Admissions Board (JAB) had admitted me to Garissa University College. I was to study a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in Business Studies and Geography. I had had limited options when it came to selecting universities, and had put down Garissa University as a last resort.
When the admission letter arrived at my home, my parents, friends and other relatives raised their concerns, urging me not to take up the spot. This was largely influenced by recent media reports which alluded that the northern region of Kenya, especially Garissa, was a hotbed of terror. “We fear for your safety,” my parents rightly lamented.
I tried securing a transfer from the college to ease the concern of my loved ones to no avail. I was to discover that JAB only issued transfers based on medical grounds. A few weeks later, in September 2013, I reported for my studies at Garissa University, a constitute college of the larger Eldoret-based Moi University.
My freshman year was nothing short of blissful. I grew into the town, learning to appreciate its unique social culture that predisposed locals to be extra friendly and welcoming to strangers. Garissa became a home away from home as I made friends and my studies flourished. Save for the sporadic isolated cases of shootings and grenade attacks, my fellow students and I did not have much to fear when it came to our safety. As absurd as it may sound, we had actually learned to love Garissa and were determined to make the most of our time here.
During my sophomore year however, Al-Shabaab stepped up their heinous activities around the town and the students started expressing their uneasiness. At one point, in December 2014, rumours of an eminent attack were so alarming that students fled the university. Fearing for our safety, we defied the administration’s order to stay put and walked out before we could do our end-of-semester examinations.
We returned to school the following year and this time, life proceeded smoothly as students were oblivious of any threats that had been issued against the university.
The day before the attack had been a momentous occasion for our institution. We had just bought a new bus for the school, and the hoopla among the students and staff was immense. The new bus made several inaugural trips around Garissa town, carrying with it a bunch of excited students on every round.
If someone had warned that a macabre attack was to take place the very next day, we wouldn’t have believed them because we were wallowing in the excitement of our new school bus. Isn’t it ironic how sometimes a man’s life is cut when it is sweetest? Besides, it was on April Fools’ and such a person would have easily been dismissed as a joker trying to take advantage of the day.
2nd April 2015.
I usually woke up a few minutes to my first class for the day. On this day however, I had a CAT (Continuous Assessment Test) and had resolved to be up at 6 am so I could get ample time to study.
For a reason I still haven’t comprehended, sleep escaped me at exactly 5 am. My five roommates, Veronica, Stella, Maureen, Sheila and Doreen (my namesake) were still fast asleep as I made my way to the bathroom.
As fate would have it, the taps at the bathrooms were dry that morning. I decided to descend downstairs to an ablution block whose water was supplied by an emergency tank. It was when I was fetching water that all hell broke loose.
I first heard gunshots from a distance, but I dismissed them as one of the common-place happenstances of Garissa. In less a minute however, heavy footsteps could be heard going up the stairs and I sensed it was no longer business as usual.
When I looked up, I saw three streaks of glazing metals making their way towards my direction. I had never witnessed live fire before, and my mind registered that it was a grenade about to explode inside ablution room.
When you have less than a second to be alive, everything around you freezes. In the split second, I was rooted to my position like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. I didn’t have time to review my life, or make peace with God. Why even bother ducking? In a strange kind of way, some sort of inexplicable peace overwhelmed me, and within that fraction of a second, I was ready to die.
But alas! I was still alive moments later! Apparently, what I had thought was a grenade turned out to be three bullets, which narrowly missed me and struck the wall behind, causing water to gush ferociously from the wall. I had survived by a hair. A girl who was brushing her teeth a few paces away was not lucky.
Run, Doreen, run! And so I ran out of the building towards the opposite direction, where new hostels were half-way constructed. Strangely though, I didn’t even bother to hide as I sank upon the ground in open sight.
“Wewe msichana! Kunaezakua kubaya acha kujificha hapo ukimbie kule,” a security guard shouted at me, pointing towards the rear exit of the school compound. I was expecting him to escape alongside me but was surprised when he instead rushed towards the hostel under attack, shouting that he was going to warn other students. He never made it to the door. I saw his body meet the pavement in an eternal embrace.
For a moment the atmosphere turned eerie, and everything seemed to spin around like a slow motion movie scene with no audio. Students escaping from their hostels woke me up from my stupor, and I decided I will give saving my life a try. Run, Doreen, run!
I joined the mass of escaping students as we made our way to the rear gate. Many of them were still in their night-clothes, and a few were stark naked. But now was not the time for flaunting fashion.
Upon reaching the gate, the guards were too confused and terrified to open it. Students opted to brave the cuts of its barbed edges and climbed over. If that gate were open, many more lives would have been saved.
I realised I would not manage to climb over the gate, and I had to think quickly. There was a nearby building whose window faced the other side of the enclosed area. I got into the building and together with other students, we managed to knock down the window and make our escape. We then ran to the main perimeter fence and climbed over it. Run, Doreen, run! And so a couple of us ran to the nearby prison camp, where the guards sheltered us.
Once I was out of danger, I borrowed a phone from one of the guards and called Mark. Twice the call went unanswered. He must be hiding and he cannot pick his phone at the moment, I said to myself. I texted him saying I had managed to escape and should he get out, he was to find me at the prison camp.
I first met Mark Mutuma during my second week in campus. What started as casual pavement greetings graduated to a warm friendship that would see us go out of our ways to help each other. Before we knew it, we were madly in love.
Though it might sound cliché, Mark and I were truly a match made in heaven. At the same age as myself, Mark was a dedicated member of the students’ governing counsel and an Information Science student. He was the love of my life, as I was his. By the time of the attack we had dated for over a year and had solid plans for the future. If the stars were to align, we’d both graduate at the same time after which we’d get married and raise a family while we build our careers. However, the stars do not always align.
I had initially decided not to inform my parents about the attack so as not to make them anxious. But after I discovered that the event was being observed live across TV stations, I gave them a call and assured them of my safety. They were in tears for the entire day.
The hardest point of my life so far was the period when survivors were being brought into the prison camp as the day proceeded. I kept searching for Mark among the survivors, but he was nowhere to be found. Later that evening, after the siege was over, a friend came to me and delivered the sad news. Rest in peace, my love.
I would urge everyone to cherish every single moment that they spend with their loved ones. It hurts so much when you lose someone and you can’t even recall the last conversation you had with them. My five roommates (Veronica, Stella, Maureen, Sheila and Doreen) all breathed their last on that odious day. I can’t even recall the last conversation I had with them. May their souls rest in peace.
Laban Kumba Daniel, the institution’s chairperson, was my best friend. When a gunman entered their hostel that morning, Laban braved himself and jumped onto his neck, fighting him. Though the act of bravery eventually cost him his dear life, his action allowed scores of students to run for their lives as he battled the attacker. You are a true hero and a leader to your death, departed friend.
At the end of the day, the government issued a statement that said 148 people had lost their lives during the attack. I suspect, however, that the death toll, especially from the preceding days, was much higher. My fellow survivors will estimate the figure to be around 300. Many of my friends who succumbed that day were not listed in the official list that was later provided. Mark’s name, for instance, did not feature in the lists of any of the local dailies during the days preceding the attack.
ROAD TO HEALING
My parents, who operate a small shop in Katani, Machakos County, have been a great pillar to my stability during the aftermath of the attack.
When the army took us home from Garissa Barracks three days after the attack, I couldn’t bring myself to face the world and the media. People always wanted me to narrate the events of the massacre but it was a memory I didn’t wish to relive. I thus locked myself in my room for many weeks after, where I would spend most of my days crying and mourning my boyfriend.
I dreamt about Mark daily. In my dreams, he always managed to escape the massacre and run towards my arms. I would then wake up to the sad realisation that he was no more, and would sink into tears.
Though I was advised to seek counselling on several occasions, I rubbished the idea. The only thing that counselling will do, I thought to myself, is to dig up the events of that horrid day of death and blood. My friends and the love of my life were already dead, will therapy bring them back?
When we were admitted to Moi University three months later, the institution made counselling sessions mandatory to all the survivors of the Garissa Massacre. I cried a lot during the orientation and a certain Dr. Adeli noticed me and took me under her wings for personal counselling.
Even though it took six months of intensive therapy for me be normal again, I am forever grateful to Moi University for making me undergo counselling. My studies have now recovered and I’m even trying to love again.
The PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), however, may take years to subside. When we (the survivors) moved to Moi University, we were assigned hostels for accommodation. A majority of us turned down the arrangement though, as it brought back eerie memories of the attack.
Up to today, I can never bring myself to go up a building that is more than a storey high. Whenever I see a flight a stairs, I remember the gunman shooting at me from them and I cannot bring myself to climb up.
I have never felt completely secure since that day. For everyplace that I visit, I usually formulate in my mind an exit plan just in case Al-Shabaab do it again. It is for this reason that I insisted on sitting while facing the door during this interview.
I highly commend the government for re-opening Garissa University. This sends out a brave message to all and sundry that we are not cowed by terror. However, on a personal note, I wouldn’t advise my loved one to study there. I am nevertheless planning to pay a visit to the college in the near future to seek closure.
The world needs to wake up to the realisation that terrorism is not an isolated problem. As the past months have shown, an act of terror can occur anywhere. I thus urge governments to join hands and seek ways to end this menace together.
My gratitude goes to well-wishers and foreign governments who stood by the survivors and families of the victims.
For the attackers, I have since learnt to forgive them unconditionally. I never even knew them, so holding a grudge against them will only hurt me. In fact, I have formed a habit of praying for Al-Shabaab members so they can reform.