Kenya’s Garissa University quietly reopens, nine months after militants massacred students

Face masks bear the names of the Garissa university students who were killed during an attack in April.
Face masks bear the names of the Garissa university students who were killed during an attack in April.
Image: Reuters/Noor Khamis
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Kenya’s Garissa University reopened today, nine months after an attack by the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab killed 147 people, including 142 students. Staff, families, and government officials attended the ceremony to mark the occasion, lauded as a triumph over the fear that terrorism aims to create. Most staff came back to the campus last week and students returned today.

“The mood was generally quiet. The few people who came were hugging, joshing, and reminiscing about that deadly dawn,” said Abdi Latif Dahir, a freelance Kenyan journalist who attended the ceremony. The event lacked the fanfare and media attention that accompanied the reopening last year of the Westgate shopping center in Nairobi where 67 were killed in an al-Shabaab attack in 2013.

Garissa is the first and only university in Kenya’s northeastern province, an area that critics say has been abandoned by the central government. Local businesses depend on the university. After the school was closed following the attack, local activists like the Northern Advocacy Organization campaigned for its reopening by demonstrating at the college and camping out in the same dormitories where the students were killed. Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta announced in December that the school would be reopened as a message that the country would not be cowed by the Somali-based insurgents.

The massacre, in which Christian students were separated from Muslim students and killed, took place in April, but gained new attention internationally after the attacks in Paris in November. Today’s ceremony was held the same week as the one-year anniversary of the other major attack in Paris last year, at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Some 25 security guards were stationed throughout the grounds of the small school during the reopening.

“We’ve worked hard for this university to be here. We will use everything possible to have it open,” principal Ahmed Oman Warfa said. He added that a perimeter wall would be built and CCTV cameras installed.

But the university may never fully recover. As many as 650 students have transferred to a branch of the school’s parent institution, Moi University, in Eldoret. And students at a neighboring teacher’s training college have refused to return.

Kenya has been the target of increasing attacks from al-Shabaab militants since 2011 when Kenyan military forces entered Somalia to help prop up the Somali government.

Westgate has still not recovered since its reopening.