Garissa was once a safe haven but now heaves under weight of terror

A graphic showing Garissa County. GRAPHIC |

What you need to know:

  • Garissa has been hit hard. Churches and other social gatherings have been attacked.
  • A resident, Mr Nelson Otieno, is among the people who now prefer to pray at home, rather than go church.

Garissa was one of the safest places in East and Central Africa,” said Lillian Osiemo, who moved to the town with her family after the 2007-2008 post-election violence that rocked Kenya after a dispute presidential poll.

Before the violence erupted, Lilian’s family lived in Nakuru, but they decided to move to Garissa, which had not been affected by the chaos that left 1,133 people dead. At the time, her father was working for the Survey of Kenya in Garissa.

“I do not know what went wrong,” she said of the April 2, terrorist attack at the Garissa University College where 148 people were killed by four gunmen in a dawn raid that lasted over 10 hours.

Lillian is not the only resident of Garissa who is worried about the turn of events that has dented Garissa’s reputation.
“The police should make an effort to build a rapport with residents. This is the only way locals to open up and report criminals,” said Samuel Kimani, who has lived in Garissa town for a decade.
For him, terrorist attacks have become all too common.

“If the situation continues like this, I would have no option but to leave,” he said.

LEFT IN PANIC

Indeed, some businesses have closed shop and moved their workers to branches in other safer parts of the country.

In almost all Al-Shabaab attacks, non-Muslims have often been targeted. This is why many people have fled, fearing that they could be next.

The Somalia-based terrorist group has been accused of using Garissa as a “playing ground”. Since October 2011 — when the Kenya Defence Forces crossed the border to fight the militants — Garissa has been hit hard. Churches and other social gatherings have been attacked.

A resident, Mr Nelson Otieno, is among the people who now prefer to pray at home, rather than go church.

“Our churches have been attacked several times. I cannot risk my life and that of my family,” said the 32-year-old construction worker who was born in Garissa.

His father worked at the then Provincial Commissioner’s office. Nelson said he misses the peaceful coexistence of his boyhood days.

“We never faced attacks then. Just like any other place, there were normal robberies and bandit (shifta) attacks, but I felt safe,” he said.

Other non-locals working in the town fear becoming jobless, should they leave Garissa. Mary Ndunda, a nurse at Iftin Medical Clinic is one of them.

“If I leave, I am not guaranteed of a job wherever I would go. I believe in God’s plans. If His plan is that I would die here, no one can change that,” said the 29-year-old, who has worked in Garissa for nearly four years.

When attacks occur, the economy of the county decelerates drastically. Non-locals, who have set up major businesses, leave in fear. In addition, teachers and medical practitioners follow suit.

“All the money that was used for security is now channelled towards development,” claimed Ibrahim Abdi, a trader.

Earlier this month, Garissa Governor Nadhif Jamaa suspended all development projects in the county, saying it is time to focus on security.

“With the insecurity bedevilling our county, we have seen it wise to suspend all new projects and address the crisis,” said MrJamaa. While the National Government handles security, the governor said, the county officials would mobilise the community to give information.

National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale and other leaders from northern Kenya have conducted a series of meetings in Garissa, Mandera and Wajir.

They spoke to elders, religious leaders and youth. Residents were urged to share information with the authorities.

“We met sheikhs, elders, youth, women and religious leaders. We agreed that they must come forward and speak about Al-Shabaab problem,” said Mr Duale.

Two days after Garissa University College was attacked, Naivas Supermarket closed down it premises and left a note at entrance reading: “We have closed, temporarily.”

Kenya Medical Training College, which was the first medical school in the whole of northeastern Kenya, was also closed down a week later. This was due to the number of transfer requests made by students from other parts of the country.

STOP TERRORIST ATTACKS

Abdifatah Abdirahman is one of the students who miraculously escaped the terrorist. His only hope is that the northeastern pioneer university would be reopened soon for studies to resume.

“When Garissa University College was opened, I was very happy because I knew it would be easier for our youth to access education,” said Abdifatah.

He said that the institution was about to introduce diploma courses, raising hopes for students who failed to make the university entry mark.

Local primary and secondary school students suffer a lot. When schools opened this year, a majority of teachers, who are non-locals, did not report to work.

Abdirahman Aden Ali, a Form Four student at County High School said his only hope is for the school to remain open.

“When Mandera was attacked, close to five teachers quit and fled. Under such circumstances, my only prayer is that we complete school,” he said.

Jeremiah Okello is a teacher in a local high school. In 2011, his friend, who is also a teacher, called him for a job and he packed his bags and left for Garissa.

“I knew Garissa as a safe haven and a place of economic prosperity,” said the 30-year-old literature teacher.

Okello has gone against all odds, including defying pressure from his family to leave. He has vowed to remain in the town.

“Going away is not a solution, but a problem to the students. Our government should be alert and stop terrorist attacks,” said Okello.

He added: “Terrorist attacks have been happening all over Kenya and not in Garissa alone. The students need us.”

As years go by, Garissa seems to be facing its most trying times. Since Kenya signed a deal of sending Kenya Defence Forces troops into Somalia, the terrorist attacks have escalated.

The insecurity cycle seems to be unbreakable, and the government has come under heavy criticism for its failure to protect Garissa residents.

If a solution is not found fast, the one time safest town in East and Central Africa, would be reduced to a terrorists’ “port in the storm” and a hostile environment for economic prosperity. Poverty, disease and displacement of people would become the order of the day.

Locals, including Otieno and Lillian are hanging onto hope. Hope that Garissa would one time dwell in unity, piece and liberty again.

They also hope that justice would be their shield and defender. This is the only way Garissa would reclaim its position and stand to be counted as a top economic hub.

To them, all is not lost. Garissa can still reclaim its place if peace and stability are restored.

Osman Mohamed Osman is a freelance writer and a Second Year student at USIU-Africa in Nairobi.

Twitter @OsmanMOsman_

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