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Kenya: moving on after Garissa verdict

Kenya declares three days of national mourning after Al Shabab-linked terrorists storm Garissa University, killing 148 people and injuring dozens more, 5 April 2015.
Kenya declares three days of national mourning after Al Shabab-linked terrorists storm Garissa University, killing 148 people and injuring dozens more, 5 April 2015. AFP PHOTO /NICHOLE SOBECKI

Survivors of Kenya's 2015 Garissa University attack, which killed 148 people, have welcomed a life sentence imposed on an Islamist militant for the massacre. But some regret that his two accomplices did not receive the same punishment. After a long drawn out trial, many are eager to move on.


For many survivors of the Garissa University College attack, Wednesday's verdict was about closure.

After waiting more than four years for the attackers to be sentenced, on Wednesday, they finally were.

Tanzanian national Rashid Charles Mberesero was given life imprisonment while Kenyans Mohammed Abikar and Hassan Edin Hassan were jailed for 41 years each.

The sentences are harsh for a country where high profile cases are often botched. But for 24-year-old student Rachael Munjiru Gikonyo, they do not go far enough.

"I think they should have been sentenced to life, because they also aided to kill people. They should also suffer in jail," she told RFI.

Garissa youths ran for their lives and witnessed fellow students slaughtered when al-Shabaab jihadists stormed their university on 2 April 2015.

"I was in a prayer room, me and my colleagues," recalls Gikonyo, a sociology student. "We were praying, and then all of a sudden, those terrorists banged the door open. They entered and started spraying bullets."

She was wounded and lost her ability to walk. Today, she uses a wheelchair.

Open wounds

The wounds are fresh too for psychologists who assisted students after the attack.

"Our own staff that were working with the students were traumatised," explains Mary Mahugu, a psychologist at Moi University in Eldoret, outside Kenya's capital of Nairobi.

The bulk of Garissa students were relocated to her establishment to finish their education.

"About 526 students were repatriated from Garissa University to Moi University, which is in the western part of Kenya," she says. "That is a huge number of students."

Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack, which left 148 people dead and led to the institution's temporary closure.

"We had to come up with an elaborate plan to support our institution [Moi University] and to create a safe space for survivors and also for those people who were working with them," she told RFI.

Part of the psychological aid came in the form of school fees from the French government, which helped a lot, says Mahugu. "It helped those students stay in college. None dropped out because of financial challenges. And as we are speaking, they have all completed their studies."

Moving On

For Mahugu, Wednesday's ruling will help in the healing process.

"The students are moving on with their lives. Moreover, this judgment comes in handy in building their confidence in the government in fighting terrorism. I know it has taken some time but it is better later than never," she commented.

Elsewhere, students like Gikonyo are less sure. It is not just the apparent 'leniency' meted out to the two suspects, it is also the lack of financial assistance that victims like her have received, which has caused upset.

"I thought they [the government] would have compensated for our lives and improved our lives since we are not in the same conditions as we were before."

Gikonyo says she is still waiting, and that life is getting more expensive. "The cost of living is higher since I have to hire someone to do the cleaning and also if I want to go somewhere I have to use more expensive ways of transport like Uber and it is quite challenging."

Bridging religious divide

The 24-year-old, who now studies at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, was forced to move closer to home, where it was more "wheelchair friendly" than Garissa.

Today, she hopes to train as a psychologist once completing her degree next year – proof for Mary Mahugu that the terror attack did not "break the students' spirit."

"Even among our former students from Garissa university, which was basically more of a mixed region, they are busy working together with students from the Western region, which is basically more Christian," she explains, referring to a peer programme set up to bring students together.

The Shabaab gunmen were reported to have freed Muslims in the Garissa attack while killing those who identified as Christians.

“We wanted to counter the feeling amongst the masses that there is a religious face to terrorism," comments Mahugu about the religious divide sparked by the attack.

"The students came together from across the religious divide to fight terrorism and we are very happy with that," she said.

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