In the early hours of April 2, 2015, gunmen took over 700 students hostage on the campus of Garissa University College, freeing Muslims and killing those who identified as Christians. 147 people were murdered and at least 79 were injured. As in the Westgate shopping mall attack in 2013, the militant group, Al-Shabaab, took responsibility.
April’s attack, which was the group’s deadliest to date, has only exacerbated existing fears, particularly as the terrorists were said to have targeted Christian students. Schools and universities can often be seen as places of Western influence, and therefore become targets of Islamic extremists.
Kenya’s population is roughly 80 per cent Christian and only 11 per cent Muslim, although the Muslim community is more concentrated in the north-east. Al-Shabaab is particularly active in this area because of its proximity to the Somali border.
A Kenyan non-governmental organization (NGO) which has operated in the predominantly Somali community of Garissa for many years is a First Fruit grantee. We asked the founder, Kito (actual name withheld), to help us understand the roots of this horrific attack and how we should respond.
First Fruit: What can you tell us about the victims?
Kito: Personally, I was involved with that institution, having established a close relationship with the Christian Union. For me, it’s really painful, because I lost one of my best friends who was shot in the streets in Garissa for no other reason than he’s a Christian, a Somali. He became a Christian, was helping his own people, and he was targeted. When I first arrived in Garissa, he was the first person to find a house for me to live. Seeing the picture of his body in the street was terrible.
Before this incident there were several attacks on Christians and the government tried to put police officers in churches and in that college. In this case, extremists killed police officers at the gate.
First, they went straight to the building where Christians were praying. People have morning devotion around 5am before they go to school or work. So students went to pray, and these people killed all the Christians who were praying. Before shooting, they told Muslims to get out and go to the mosque on campus. So it’s really trauma after trauma. It’s very devastating.
First Fruit: What has happened since the attack?
Kito: The institution remains closed indefinitely, most students will not go back. The trauma is unbelievable and nobody can guarantee their safety. The government can’t take control of the situation because the extremists keep striking and disappearing into thin air.
Some of the terrorists were killed, others were arrested. One of them actually was a good student who studied law at the University of Nairobi. Many of them are Kenyan Somali, and others are from other parts of Africa.
First Fruit: Do you think there is a connection between the university attack and the Westgate Mall incident?
Kito: The connection is that it was the work of Al-Shabaab, the attacks have been done by the same groups of people, having the same agenda to send a message to the government that it’s time to pull the military out of Somalia. They also want to send the message that Islam is here to stay, become a Muslim and you will be safe, or remain a Christian and your life is at risk.
First Fruit: Can you help us understand some of the root causes that led up to this incident?
Kito: Any Kenyan will tell you that the reason for this attack is because the Kenyan government decided to send the military to fight Al-Shabaab in Somalia. But the roots go back to colonization, the way Europeans partitioned the land was a mess. There are Somalis in Kenya who feel they don’t belong, and the unity of religion helps them belong to the other side in Somalia. The previous and current governments have not fairly allocated resources to the region.
During my 10 years in Garissa, there were radical teachings that Christians were the enemy. A lot of preaching in the mosques sowed seeds of hatred, and they feel it’s time for reaping. The sheiks, imams, and preachers feel sorry that things are bad, but this is the seed they planted.
First Fruit: How did a region like this become so religiously polarized?
Kito: There are internal and external factors contributing to the situation that have been building over the years. Pakistanis coming to visit the preachers bring fiery messages. They present the idea that Kenya is there to win Muslims to become Christians, and so they have to keep their distance. The way things are being framed is that Kenya is representing America.
But I must say that even the church is to blame. Although Garissa was dominated by Muslims, there was a time years ago, before people became radicalized, when the environment provided a great opportunity to bring the message of Christianity. But we never took advantage of that time. Because events have been conducive to extremist ideology, it’s becoming extremely difficult to share the message of Christ.
First Fruit: When we think of the church in Garissa, how many are Somali- believers?
Kito: There are very few Somali believers, and those that are there won’t go to church because it isn’t safe for them. We want to use God’s wisdom by not exposing ourselves to the enemy. When extremists see Somali converts to Christianity, they become infuriated, and attack the church where the Somali believer is going. So by going to church, they are putting other believers in danger, not just their lives. Most of them are secret believers, and they don’t tell anybody. They just know it and meet with somebody who offers to help them.
First Fruit: I think people would be interested to know your own story. Why did you move to Garissa?
Kito: After graduating from [a Kenyan university], the calling of God was very clear in my life, and it was time to go into missions. In 1998, one of my friends working in Garissa told me that it was the place to be, but I didn’t want to accept that. Garissa was in the middle of nowhere and the last place I wanted to be. I wanted to resist the idea, but having prayed for some time, it became clear that Garissa was the place I should go.
First Fruit: How have you reflected on the situation? As you think about the future of your ministry? As you think about what can be done?
Kito: There are wonderful believers who are continuing the work. I feel so blessed that the work I was leading is not jeopardized by these incidents. But it’s been hard to know that they are in the middle of all the insecurity and uncertainty. They go to church and they don’t know whether they are going to come back, and so church attendance have gone down.
It is disheartening to know that a place where we were making progress to bridge the gap between Christians and Muslims is being ripped apart by extremist ideology. But I also know that God is in control. It is His work, and He will take care of His children. In the midst of all this turmoil and chaos, He is able to show Himself to other Muslims who might look at what’s happening and begin to question what they believe—whether this violence is something that truly reflects the picture of a loving, powerful God.
The promise is that everything works for good for those who believe. I believe God and I believe His word, but it’s very hard to try to dissect the whole thing, to try to understand and come to terms with what’s happening in the context of what we wanted to do as an organization, and for me personally, as an individual.
First Fruit: What is the calling of the Christian in this situation? What does it mean for the Christian to regard his Muslim neighbor as a neighbor in this tension?
Kito: It is times like this that true believers are actually known. When everything is working fine and life is good, everybody can be nice. But when we have been tested, when we have been taken through trials and tribulations, that’s the time that real Christians manifest. So I think that if early Christians were not persecuted, if they didn’t go through suffering and trials, if they were not being killed and scattered around the world, the Gospel would not have spread.
In this situation, Christians can show light and love to the very people who hate and persecute them. They can show love and care for them and help improve their lives holistically. Whether it is by way of school (what we are doing), reading scripture, singing, or just providing bowls so that they can get water, we are meeting their needs.
When we do these tangible things, people begin to wonder why? We’re killing these Christians, but still they’re showing us love. God uses these situations to speak to the hearts of people. But I also know that when people go through difficult moments in their lives, they turn to God.
Through the prayers of people in Garissa, I believe that revival is going to come. Christians are being returned, and Muslims are being challenged about the religion they have adopted. So though it’s very difficult, our faith is tested through trial—it’s like gold—tested by refining it in the fire. We have been refined in the fire of persecution.
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7)