At Garissa University, the Covenant was Broken

I spent two nights at Garissa University College, in the dorm where the massacre happened.

You can tell why the attackers chose Elgon Dorm for a last stand. Tucked neatly in a corner, and with a 270 degree view of the school, the road and the land behind, Elgon Dorm was perfect for a last stand. A sniper hid behind a tank on the roof, and also moved between dorm rooms in the upper floors. He kept an entire army of soldiers, policemen, and police reservists at bay for nearly a whole day. With a single gun and a near endless supply of ammunition, he bought his colleagues time to herd over 50 students into one space and mow them down.

A few days before the Garissa anniversary, I bumped into Ndinda Kioko’s deeply reflective piece on how spaces that experience tragedy are reclaimed. Her muse is Westgate, a space that, despite having its stones scrubbed of the blood, still hasn’t recovered. Ndinda explores what it means for a place to be scrubbed of “the horrors we have become to each other.” How those spaces that bear the blood and memory of death and gore will be rebuilt. “The horrific history of Kenya piles and piles,” she ponders, “and then a country hardened by silence is formed; a country that knows how to survive by looking away.”

***

Isaac “Pop Lord Bushen” Kosgei was a dark, lanky young man with chubby cheeks and an afro of soft hair. He had many dreams, but at the top of them was to be a DJ. The last post he ever updated on his Facebook profile “Pop Lord Bushen“, two days before his death, was a picture of a DJ deck. Its caption was “DJ wazimu ndani ya nyumba” (Mad DJ in the house).

Four hours to the start of the massacre, he replied to his friend and “Co-DJ” telling him “party ishaisha joh…mahangovers tew” (The party has ended…hangovers only).

That was 12:08 am on April 2nd, 2015.

At 8:39am, when the massacre had been underway for three hours, someone else commented and said “DJ abadilishwe ndo parsh iendelee.” (Change the DJ so the party can go on).

Isaac Kosgei was probably dead by then.

His roommate and friend, Elias Magangi, told a Daily Nation writer here, five days after the attack, that they left Isaac asleep. In a panic, they all jumped out of the room and didn’t realise until it was too late that they had left Isaac and another roommate, Gideon, in the room.

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Elgon Dorm has since been renamed “Ewaso Ng’iro.”

Isaac probably never realized what was happening. He always slept with his headphones on, letting the charming rhythms of country music lull him to sleep and dreams of a music career. When one of the murderers stood over him and aimed his gun at him, Isaac probably didn’t even panic. He probably never knew he was dying, until he was.

Isaac had a covenant that was broken before that night, as did the other 143 students and 2 staffers who died that night. That social contract is borne in the line by Richard Grenier that “We sleep peaceably in our beds because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.” Isaac felt comfortable enough to sleep to the sound of music because he was a young Kenyan hundreds of kilometers away from home. He was comfortable enough to sleep with the door open, because its very hot in Garissa, because he thought he was safe.

To him, that meant that he had a covenant with the government, one that allowed him to have a good night’s sleep without worrying about guns and terror. That pact was broken. And no one seems eager to do penance for it.

***

On both nights, we huddle in the middle of the space where the infamously gory photo was taken. It’s been cleaned now, and it feels worryingly smaller than it does in the image. Only one other group of people has ever slept here since that bloody night, and it feels macabre, almost as if we are soiling a memorial by being there.

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How the floor where over 50 students were herded, made to lie down, and shot, looks today.

What is one supposed to feel in a space like this? A space where over 50 people died a painful death, made even worse because they were herded together, forced to lie on the floor, and shot up like targets. As bureaucrats sipped on coffee at pretentious meetings to decide who to send to respond to the attack, they lay on this floor, dying. Their blood oozed from the open wounds in their heads, drenched their clothes, and formed a heavy, slow river towards the drainage. Parts of their bodies, blown apart by multiple close-range shots, eventually blocked the drainage. It’s clean now. Someone here unclogged it.

We sat there for those two nights, in 29 degree heat, wondering what we should feel. We would all sleeping feet away from where a tragedy happened. On beds whose last occupants woke up to the horror that we humans inflict on each other. Where the blood that flows when a social contract is broken, flowed. Where Pop Bushen, eager to build a music career, died as he listened to his favorite songs. As he slept to the sounds of music that made him smile. Did he feel pain? Did he even know what happened to him when it was happening to him? Was he lucky that he was saved from the sheer terror that is knowing you are going to die?

It was rage. Rage was the common feeling to this space and its horrific story.

An imposing edifice now stands in the middle of a memorial garden, on the edge of the campus. On it are 149 names; some still just single names. Above the four plaques with the names is a bigger, more prominent plaque, eternal gratitude to a politician for supplying and facilitating this act of remembrance. If it is one.

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The centerpiece of the Garissa University College Memorial Garden. The plaque on the far right reads “Verily the power of education will never be silenced even by the deadliest gun.”

For the people whose names are on this list, including the two missing, the covenant was broken. It was abused, shattered, and then ignored. It was ripped apart, not by the high-caliber bullets of an AK-47, but by the utter neglect of a government to protect and defend them. It was broken by men and women who should have prevented this and didn’t. Who should have come to their rescue but did nothing. Or did little. Or did little and did it too late.

On the ground, the space is still broken. The covenant hasn’t even been window-dressed, its destruction has been seemingly accepted as a fact of life. Its tragedy completely ignored but for those who know what really happened here. Those to whom it was a real life event, not a bunch of Tweets, a random documentary or a news story. Unlike Westgate, Garissa University’s halls still have reminders of April 2nd, 2015. Metal frames still bear bullet holes; some window panes are still broken. So are people here, and at Moi University, and in homes across the country.

***

The first person to die at Garissa University, at about 4:48 am, was Abdirizak Aden. He was one of the two night guards on duty that night, and was startled by four heavily armed men walking through the open gate. It was open because there is a mosque inside the campus, then accessible to anyone.

The second person to die that morning was Mohammed Hassan Adan, the second night guard, just a few minutes later. He didn’t have to die. He actually chased down the attackers and fought with them before they pumped bullets into his body. People in Garissa still tell his story with a smile on their faces, about his unbounded bravery.

When the first plaques of the memorial came, the day before the anniversary, these two names were missing.

The people for whom the Garissa University attack was a real life event haven’t healed. None of those who still have to work here, and who still do so with a smile, have healed. Ahmed Warfa, the principal, couldn’t stop crying when he talked about April 2nd, 2015. In at least one interview after the attack, he openly voiced what appears a common sentiment among staffers “I wish I was armed and trained on the use of firearms on that night” It’s a sentiment of the utter helplessness they felt that day, having to sit behind lines of fire as calls and texts came in saying nothing less than the students were getting killed. As Janet Akinyi texted her boyfriend that final, traumatic, and painful goodbye.

Then, after the bodies had been carted away and the cameras disappeared, those who survived physical death had to fight to keep the institution open. While the government had invested into re-opening Westgate to “show them”; Garissa was fair play. No one needed it. The only institution of higher learning in the entire North Eastern province, whose halls had witnessed the worst massacre in an educational institution, and no one needed it. We didn’t need to “show them” with Garissa University. We needed to forget it, and them. Because that is always the easy option.

As usual, a somber event one year later to find ways to heal this space became a political circus. Politicians, a captured media, and everything else in between, working what should be seen as a sacred event, into a political spectacle. It went on till late, with political honchos who had never been to Garissa, not since the attack or its re-opening nine months later, staying until 11pm that night. They declared their undying love and support, then jumped into SUVs and promptly disappeared. We had now “shown them” enough for another 12 months.

We have come to tolerate a national culture of silence and erasure that is not who we are, and who we are supposed to be. As the horrors of Kenya pile and pile, as Ndinda says in Stones and Memory, we choose to pretend to forget. With Garissa at least, we all fought that erasure in our own little ways. But we could have done more. We could have demanded accountability, proper compensation, proper post-traumatic help, and penance on those who broke the pact. The terrorists did not break it, they found it broken, and walked right through with guns and over 150 lives.

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The university was re-opened nine months after that bloody morning in April. There are 60 students now, from a height of 835 the night before the attack. And that sense of utter neglect lingers.

It has become clear that the covenant is broken and one-sided. It exists only to the point that we pay taxes and cast our votes. What remains to be done is to heal these spaces ourselves, to try and give them what they need to breathe new life. To face that haunting memory and build from it. To make sure that whoever walks into Garissa University ten years from now, gets world class education and remembers the over 150 people who died there on April 2nd, 2015.

Garissa University needs friends. It needs friends from all walks of life. Like a bereaved person during and after a wake, the institution needs real friends to stand by it. To tell it and its traumatized administrators, students and staff, that they will be okay. That there is something to look forward to. It needs real friends because the political class is an elitist, selfish, divisive, fear-mongering and defeatist cadre of Kenyans. Because as a people, that’s not who we are.

People to hold its hand as it tries to overcome it’s now horrific history. As it faces that eternal memory. I don’t know how you can help Garissa University yet, but find a way.

To grieve is not to admit defeat.

To grieve is not to belittle other tragedies.

Owaahh, 2016

One story is good,

till Another is told.