Fear, terror and the sound of gunshots lingered at Garissa University on 2 April. Some students managed to escape the horrific attack while 147 others lost their lives.

Garissa University students on 2 April. Photo: Twitter (@DennisOkari)

Garissa University students on 2 April. Photo: Twitter (@DennisOkari)

A daring run after he heard piercing gunshots are what saved Erick Okuon’s life when gunmen attacked Garissa University in Kenya at dawn last week.

Many of his friends were not so lucky when masked al-Shabaab fighters stormed the university and called on students in two dormitories to come out of their bedrooms and lie on the ground, face-down, before being executed. At least 147 university students and staff were killed on the day.

Okuon and other students managed to escape the attack by jumping out of nearby windows and hiding quietly in the bush as the sound of gunshots and crying flew over their heads.

His cousin Francis Otieno, a Wits postgraduate, recounted Okuon’s story of survival and spoke of the emotional turbulence that took place on the day of the attack.

“I got the news early at 6am that morning. The first thing I thought was to call home and try to get hold of my cousin. I couldn’t get hold of him so we tried calling other people to reach out to him,” Otieno said.

“From morning to evening we had to wait and his phone was off, it was a very painful wait.”

He and other relatives had to wait along with the rest of the world to find out whether or not Okuon and other students had survived in the remote region of Kenya.

“The attack took part in the north eastern region and it’s a struggle to get someone out there so we had to wait on information from the Red Cross and the government,” Otieno said.

Otieno said most of the students at Garissa are poor. The students come from all over Kenya but attend the remote university because it is less expensive than schools in major cities.
“Most students are government sponsored and are from humble backgrounds,” explained Otieno.

Six days later, the pain of the attack still lingers in Garissa with students still fearful and going through trauma counselling.

“There is quite a lot of fear over there at the moment. This attack was on the poor, the people in the region of Garissa has large numbers of poor people. This attack just proves that nobody is spared,” Otieno said.

According to Otieno, his cousin is among those still going for trauma counselling. “He couldn’t celebrate having survived the attack. There’s no celebration, just a lot of anger.”

The April 2 attack on the university took place about 200km from the Somali border. At least 147 people were killed and 79 injured. The day was a chilling reminder of the 2013 attack in Kenya when al-Shabaab raided Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, killing 67 people during a four-hour siege.