Victims of Garissa University College attack in Kenya’s north eastern region. | File photo

A miraculous escape from the jaws of terrorists

The screams and gunshots were deafening, so we kept running for a secure place. I ran barefoot because I did not have time to look for shoes.

Kennedy O. Emailuk
First-person source
Kennedy O. Emailuk is a survivor of the terrorist attack at Garissa University College. He was a Bachelor of Business Management student at the time and he barely survived. After the attack, he moved to Moi University, where he graduated.

Today, he lives in Nairobi, but the unfortunate attack still lingers on his mind.
Background
On April 2, 2015, gunmen stormed Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya killing 148 people and injuring 79 or more. The attack was carried out by the militant group Al-Shabaab, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda. It is reported the gunmen took over 700 hostages and they killed the Christians while they freed the Muslims.
The four attackers were killed that day and others were later arrested.
It was the worst and most deadly terrorist attack in Kenya the deadliest in Kenya in 17 years.

GARISSA, Kenya — On April 2, 2015, I came face-to-face with terrorists.

I brushed with death, and I lived, but I do not say I survived. My life is a miracle, so I live to tell the story. 

I had never been engulfed in an invasion before, and the fear scared me to death.

On that fateful day, I woke up early, but I felt lethargic. I had gone to bed promptly enough the night before but was short on energy. 

It was daybreak, and I just felt the day would be a dull one. I remained confident, thinking I needed something to ginger me up. I stayed in the hostel with my friends as we figured out our next move.

Little did I know, I would live through the Garissa University attack – one of the worst terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil, leaving 148 dead and at least 70 injured.

Raucous movements ignite fear

It was morning and I was holed up in the hostel with my friends. Suddenly we heard these guttural movements and sounds.

It was immediately evident to everyone that something was happening; we were in a life-threatening situation that demanded swiftness. We trembled with fear but instinctively acted.

Students began running to seek safety as gunshots from terrorists rang through the air. We rushed forth out from the hostel, which had immediately become a danger zone.

We followed other students who were escaping the threat without a second thought.

It was necessary to find an escape from the tense environment surrounding us. I did not know if the direction we were taking was a safe one.

The screams and gunshots were deafening, so we kept running for a secure place. 

I ran barefoot because I did not have time to look for shoes. 

Considering the terrain and the climate of northeastern Kenya, where the besieged university was situated, it was excruciating to run barefoot. 

Despite the deep pain cutting through my soles, I dashed to safety. The agony beneath my feet was overwhelming, but the courage and determination to be out of harm’s way kept me in motion. 

Finding a haven at long last

The escape was tedious, but it saved the lives of many students, including mine. We fled from the terrorists through a gate near a construction site on campus. We could not use the main entrance because terrorists had already overrun it. 

The terrorists attacked and killed the security guards operating the main gate and moved through the classrooms shooting any person they came across. From the classrooms, attackers were rushing to the hostels, but luckily some of us were already on the run. 

The small gate made it easy for us to flee terror. We proceeded to the nearby Kenya Defense Forces camp, about 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) from the university, without stopping.

When we arrived at the camp, we found some students already there. It was fortunate that we knew where the camp was, and it offered a haven as security beefed up at the university. 

At long last, we felt some safety at the camp. Even though I was still tense, the gallant soldiers protected us.

A sigh of relief to my parents

When the news of the terrorist attack at my university hit the live news, parents, relatives, and friends began calling. Those who escaped with their cellphones made quick calls or received them and reassured their loved ones of their safety.

Unfortunately, I had lost my cellphone, and I was unsettled. I did not contact my parents immediately but instead reached out to them later in the day. It was a sigh of relief to my family, who had already made futile attempts to reach me.

My parents told me that they tried to contact my friends to find out if they had talked to me. Everyone at home was worried and wished to find me alive.

Finally, to the delight of my parents and relatives, I made a call home. I borrowed a cellphone and quickly called my two brothers to assure them I was safe. It was a significant relief to everyone, lifting the somber mood that had swallowed them up. 

Some students were stuck in the hostel.

Due to the fear and unrest that engulfed the university, some students hid in the hostel. It was an unfortunate decision for some of my friends who went into hiding. 

The terrorists injured some and killed others. 

My decision to run away was not predetermined; it happened without a second thought. Thus, you cannot blame those who remained in the hostel. It was not that they were ignorant. They did not know what to do in a situation like that.

Our hearts were pounding, and it was challenging to make a rational decision. Instincts guided us. Even those who hid in the hostel must have hoped it would be safe. This incident was a life-and-death situation, and nobody knew the right thing to do. The only hope we had was our creator.

The security personnel could not save my friends right away. They came after lives were lost, but their response was quick given the speed of the attack.

We had not conducted any drills on how to respond to such an attack. Any adversity that struck my friends in the hostels was something unavoidable. We were vulnerable.

Lost friends and classmates

When I remember the close friends I lost who were cornered in the crossfire, it hurts. 

Losing my buddies, who I considered brothers, is unbearable. They were people who stood with me through any challenge I faced. It is deeply sorrowful to recall this horrible event.

Days later, after the attack, I also learned that they killed some of my classmates and left others struggling to live with permanent scars and wounds.

Even though I survived, the burden of losing my friends and classmates sits on my shoulders. I try as much as possible to forget, but every time I sit pensively, the memories become fresh.

The pain I still face is not mine alone. Some of my friends suffer a similar agony. I hope that at long last, we will heal and become stronger. 

Security breach

Terrorism is a global problem, and no country or community is safe from it. It requires concerted efforts in intelligence sharing. 

My university did not have tight security, which would have neutralized the attackers before they launched a relentless assault on innocent students and staff employed at the institution. 

I can remember that we had four administration police manning the university at night. During the day, there were only two security guards without any sophisticated weapons to thwart any probable attack. 

I am not a security expert, but looking at the security of my university, it was not tight, and it was vulnerable.

The security guards were not trained in a proper way to protect us from armed terrorists. The police officers deployed to the university could not defend us sufficiently in an adequately coordinated terrorist attack.

Security lax

When I look at the attack, if they had beefed up security, knowing the place was a flashpoint, we would not have lost so many lives.

Although some students had to find a way out of danger quickly, I feel that many of my friends would not have lost their lives if we prepared for such an eventuality.

Also, some students did not know what to do to secure themselves. That is perhaps why some felt taking cover in the hostel was safer than running away.

However, those who understood our campus environment suitably knew the possible paths they could use to evade danger.

Some students hid behind the hostel as they sought a way out of harm’s way. Terrorists targeted the front of the hostel and shot some students who used the main doors to evade them. 

However, my friends in the backyard could find a slightly safer way to escape from campus unhurt.

It was education that took me to the volatile region

Education took me to this part of Kenya. My country was already recording a spate of attacks in the area, but I had to go.

Northeastern Kenya is a distressed area due to its proximity to the Republic of Somalia. Terrorists wreaking havoc in Somalia sneak into Kenya through the porous borders to destabilize the region.

I used to encounter news of terrorists roaming around the region. However, as a student, I was helpless, and there was no way I could take action to keep the university secure at an individual level. 

As an innocent young man from western Kenya, my only desire was to acquire an education. Besides, I was a government-sponsored student without the discretion to make a final choice for my university.

When I received an admission letter to enroll at Garissa, which by then was a constituent college of Moi University, I was terrified. 

I had not visited the region, but my desire for campus life and education inculcated a spirit of grit and perseverance. This spirit convinced me to go with the hope that everything would be okay. 

I believed I would go to the university and come back home successfully. My parents felt differently. They wanted me to join a university far away from places considered susceptible to terrorists.

Our financial status would not allow us that, so I joined the university to realize my dreams. 

I convinced myself I would always be safe. Unfortunately, this horrendous invasion shattered the dreams of Kenyans who came from every part of the country.

Move to Moi University

After some counseling and healing, we were allowed to join Moi University while the government sped up efforts to resume operations at Garissa University. 

I was happy about the decision to move us. It would have been traumatic and devastating if the government ordered us to go back to the very place that had put us in such danger. 

We received a heroic reception at Moi University. Students were understanding and ready to help us acclimate. The embrace from fellow students was incredible and gave me hope I was secure. 

Even though memories of the attack come back, the support I received helped me heal. I focused on my studies at Moi University until I graduated. 

Beefing up security at learning institutions

While I am no longer a university student, I will always advocate for better security at learning institutions. Students can only concentrate if they are free from the fear of being attacked.

I encourage university administrations and the government to secure these institutions. 

The attack on Garissa University was unfortunate, and I hope there will be no such adverse attacks in any other learning institution. 

Students are defenseless, and authorities must take the necessary action to beef up security and protect learners.

My life was at stake, and how I lived through that terrorist attack will permanently remain a miracle to me.

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Obwin Owen Benjamin, a Kenyan author, and journalist with a background in electronic and digital media. He has experience in research and fact-checking, news editing, and reporting.