By Daniel Irungu
I recently covered the attack on Garissa University* for epa, through which I now have a special connection with some of the survivors.
On April 2nd, 2015, I was alerted about the hostage situation by one of my contacts in Garissa working for a local media house. He was among the first people to get to the University. So I immediately contacted my senior colleague, Dai Kurokawa, and waited for his feedback. All the while, my contact in Garissa kept telling me it was a serious attack and we should go immediately. Finally, Dai decided that we should both go together, contacted a reliable cab driver and came to pick me up. It took us some 4-5 hours on the road to get to Garissa. Close to our destination, we all got arrested including the cab driver. This happened after I took some pictures of police officers on trucks as they were heading to Garissa to offer backup. Little did we know that police were therefore suspecting us of being “enemies”. They had made a phone call to the police headquarters in Nairobi and orders had been given out for us to be arrested at the last police check point before getting to Garissa. The police officers held us in their police station, interrogated us, and ordered me to delete the pictures in question. After finding we had no bad intentions and that we were accredited and genuine journalists, we were released and able to continue our journey. When we got to the scene of the attack, we found that no journalists were allowed into the university grounds, the operation was still going on. We could hear gun shots. Dai and I decided to part ways to find different angles to illustrate the story.
As I was roaming around, I happened to meet some local Somalia youths who asked me ‘Do you want to take pictures of police officers sleeping on the ground?’ in Swahili language. They took me to a place where officers were lying down along the fence of the university. I just walked towards the officers innocently without knowing I was right inside the battle line. As it turned out, the officers were taking cover, not sleeping as the locals had thought. As I got closer to the soldiers, several gun shots were fired by the terrorists aimed at the officers. When I realised I was in the middle of a battle field, I went down to take cover myself, right inside a thorny shrub along the fence. There I found a General Service Unit (GSU) officer. He had been among the first military men to respond to the attack at 6 am in the morning, he told me. The first thing he asked me for was drinking water. Luckily I had brought some water bottles with me. He was grateful and engaged me in a conversation while I took pictures of him.
He had witnessed his colleague being shot dead by the attackers when they first arrived to the scene in the early hours. Since then he had not been able to move from his position due to the heavy gun shots from a sniper attacker positioned on the upper floor of the hostel and aiming at them. It dawned on me that I would not be safe and decided to move and ended up hiding under a tree, from where I witnessed a soldier being shot. I was in shock, could not even take pictures and stayed glued to the ground until I started to relax a little and to take a few pictures of the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) soldiers breaking into the university compound using tanks.
I returned to where my colleague Dai Kurokawa was, in order to file the pictures I had taken. Dai had been worried sick about my whereabouts. When he saw the pictures, he went silent and helped me edit them. Our pictures were the first ones from the front battle line illustrating how intense the situation was. Later, we went together to the area I had been before. The situation was now getting even more serious. I never stayed for long in one place, but left to file pictures. At this point, the soldiers together with a special police unit called Recce squad were able to gain control of the situation. Luckily, my colleague Dai was there to capture the moment, and was able to go inside the university together with the soldiers, also shooting pictures of the students being rescued.
Once I had slowly recovered from the traumatic events, I came to think that this experience was like a turning point in my life. It taught me to let the people closest to me know how much I love and care for them. Life is short and the best you can do is live it happily and in one piece. To me wealth is not about how much you own or earn, but it is about how many lives you touch with what you have or do. Have you ever asked yourself how many lives you have touched or changed in a positive way?
Special thanks to Dai Kurokawa, and all other friends who have been there offering support through prayers and encouraging words, I value you all.
*On 2 April 2015, gunmen stormed the Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya, some 330 km east of Nairobi, killing 147 people, mainly students and injuring 79 or more. The militant group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack. The gunmen took over 700 students hostage, freeing Muslims and singling out Christians who were shot. The siege ended after nearly 15 hours, when all four of the attackers were killed by Kenyan forces.