Anastacia Mikwa, a 20-year-old student at Kenya’s Garissa University College when it was attacked by al-Shabaab extremists last April, was shot multiple times and lost her friends. Still traumatised and crippled – but feeling lucky to be alive – she spoke to University World News about the massacre in which 148 people lost their lives.
The Garissa assault was one of the most serious worldwide on universities, and the deadliest in Kenya since the 1998 bombings of United States' embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, in which more than 200 people died. President Uhuru Kenyatta declared three days of national mourning.
“When the attackers struck, around 05h00 in the morning, I was asleep,” said softly spoken Mikwa at her rural home in Masinga in Machakos county, some 160 kilometers northeast of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. [Click here for a video of the interview.]
“I heard gunshots and suddenly everyone started scampering for safety. But I had nowhere to go because the terrorists had already entered my dormitory.
“They shot me multiple times and thought I had died. I lay there for hours until the Kenya Defence Forces came to my rescue.”
The college finally reopened a few weeks ago.
Four members of the al-Shabaab militant group, which is based in neighbouring Somalia and has links with al-Qaeda, entered Garissa University College in the early hours of 2 April 2015. Armed with assault rifles and grenades, they stormed dormitories.
According to police, the attackers at first shot “indiscriminately” and then took more than 700 students hostage. They freed Muslim students and executed non-Muslim students.
This was confirmed by al-Shabaab, which quickly claimed responsibility. Military operations spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab told Reuters: “We sorted people out and released the Muslims.”
Collins Wetangula, vice-chair of the student union, told Associated Press that he and roommates were about to shower when the attack began, and were able to lock themselves in a room. They heard shots coming from campus dormitories, and footsteps. “The gunmen were saying 'sisi ni al-Shabab' – Swahili for 'we are al-Shabaab'.”
According to CNN, medics and people who viewed the corpses reported that many students had been shot in the back of the head and some had been beheaded.
It took the security forces some 12 hours to engage the attackers – who were also strapped with explosives – and take control of the college. When the siege was over 148 people were dead – including the militants – and 79 were injured. Those killed were almost all students.
The wounded were airlifted to hospital and others were reunited with their families at Nairobi’s Nyayo National Stadium. Five men involved in planning the Garissa attack were later arrested.
Nearly a year on, Mikwa’s distress is still evident. “Every time there’s a loud bang, I get traumatised,” she said, fighting off tears. “I lost many of my friends to the attack and even today that thought keeps haunting me.”
Kenya has been hit by a string of terrorist attacks since it sent troops into war-ravaged neighbouring Somalia in 2011 to fight al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa. Garissa lies 200 kilometres from the border and 110 kilometres from Dadaab, site of the world's largest refugee camp complex.
Terror attacks in the past three years have included the Westgate shopping mall invasion in Nairobi in 2013, in which 67 people were killed. And in 2014, there were the Nairobi bus bombings, the Gikomba bombings and the Mpeketoni and Lamu attacks.
The Garissa area was volatile before the college assault, and remains so. Several other universities had warned of terror threats in the week before the massacre, and had stepped up security. Garissa Vice-chancellor Ahmed Warfa had repeatedly approached local security authorities to step up protection – but was ignored by all of them.
In 2011 the government upgraded Garissa Teacher Training College into a degree-awarding institution, and it was reconstituted as Garissa University College, a constituent college of Moi University. It is the first and only public higher education institution offering degrees in the region, and at the time of the assault had around 75 staff serving around 850 students.
The recovery, and family
Following the attack, Mikwa was flown to the Defence Forces Memorial Hospital in Nairobi where she underwent operations and received counselling.
According to doctors, there were multiple gunshot wounds to Mikwa’s thighs. “The bones were entirely shattered and it was impossible to tell how many bullets hit her,” one of the doctors was quoted in the Daily Nation newspaper as saying.
The delicate treatment involved 28 surgeries. Today she is able to walk again, albeit with the aid of crutches.
Mikwa said she was looking forward to resuming her studies and being able to play her favourite sport, volleyball. “I miss volleyball, which I used to play while at campus.”
Her family stayed at her bedside and their constant support motivated her to keep going.
The last-born in a large family – she has three brothers and three sisters – Mikwa was admitted to Garissa in September 2014 to pursue a bachelor degree in education. The attack happened as students were preparing to sit for final second-semester examinations.
“It has slowed down my university education but certainly it has not killed my dreams,” she declared.
Her father Charles Mikwa (57), a primary school teacher, told University World News about the hours of agony the family endured when they learned of the assault.
“It was a very difficult moment,” he said. “I just sat down and started praying because I could do nothing at that time – I could not walk there and nobody could go there.
“We just had to pray and wait until we received the good news that she was alive and in hospital. We thank God that she is alive today. We hope to see her resume her studies soon.”
Most of the students who survived the attack have been transferred to Moi University’s main campus in Eldoret, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, to continue their studies.
Charles Mikwa said it had never crossed his mind that his daughter’s life would be in danger when he received the admission letter to the university in September 2014. “We thought she would be okay because other students were also studying there.”
The attack has made him think twice, and he hopes that this time round his daughter will get a place at a campus closer to home.
“I feel the main campus in Eldoret is way too far considering her current situation. I would wish to have her study somewhere near where we can visit her any time she is in urgent need,” he said.
Looking to the future
The feelings Mikwa harboured following the al-Shabaab slaughter are slowly melting away and she can now afford a smile. “I am not bitter anymore,” she said shyly. “I hope nothing like that will ever happen again.”
She wished fellow student survivors the best in their new studies, and said she hoped to join them soon. “I’m thankful to everyone, including the president, who was kind enough to come to see me in person at the hospital.”
Despite the scars the attack has left her with, Mikwa feels her future is bright. “I want to become a university lecturer,” she said.
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