KENYA – The sun hadn’t risen at Garissa University College. Most students slept in their beds. A few had woken up to head to early morning Christian prayers.
Then the terror began.
It started with an explosion and gunshots around 5:30 a.m. Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET Wednesday) at the Kenyan school’s front gates. The attackers continued to fire as they stalked through campus, with the Red Cross saying they stopped at a girls’ dormitory.
At one point, they burst into a room where Christians had gathered and took hostages, said lecturer Joel Ayora. A student in the room told Alex Kubasu, a reporter with CNN affiliate Citizen TV, that the terrorists sprayed bullets indiscriminately, striking his thigh.
“Then they proceeded to the hostels,” Ayora told CNN, referring to the university dorm, “shooting anybody they came across — except their fellows, the Muslims.”
According to AFP, the gunmen separated the students by religion and allowed Muslims to leave. This would be consistent with the past practices of Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terror group that’s claimed responsibility for the attack. That’s what Al-Shabaab did in a December raid on a quarry in the Kenyan village of Kormey, near the Somali border, that ended with at least 36 killed.
Whatever their religion, hundreds of students managed to escape, said Dennis Okari, a reporter with CNN affiliate NTV.
Some ran. Some crawled. All feared for their lives.
And they were the lucky ones.
It wasn’t until about 15 hours after the attack began that the explosions and gunfire around Garissa finally ended. Interior Ministry Secretary Joseph Nkaissery announced that four terrorists were killed and the operation had ended “successfully.”
By then, 147 people were dead and plans were “underway to evacuate students and other affected persons,” the Kenya National Disaster Operation Centre tweeted.
“It is a very sad day for Kenya,” Nkaissery said.
Some of those students, at one point or another, were believed to be hostages in one of the four dormitories on campus.
Yet others like Ayora managed to find safety, in his case at the staff residence. Others escaped the college’s grounds. Okari, for instance, told CNN that he saw about 200 people sitting in the scorching mid-90-degree heat Thursday in a corner of a Garissa airstrip, surrounded by military officials.
One student, Japhet Mwala, recalled to AFP how “everyone started running” after hearing blasts and gunshots.
“There were those who were not able to leave the hostels where the gunmen headed and started firing,” Mwala said. “I am lucky to be alive, because I jumped through the fence with other students.”
Rosalind Mugambi fled into a nearby field with “bullets following us.” She escaped unscathed, but a few of her friends did not.
“We saw some bloodstains,” Mugambi told AFP, “and they were shot.”