Monday 27 May 2019

Icy fingers of terror touch the heart of Kenya's 'paradise'

The attack at Garissa University has been a brutal reminder to Kenyans that they are living under the constant threat of terrorism
The attack at Garissa University has been a brutal reminder to Kenyans that they are living under the constant threat of terrorism
Denise Calnan

Denise Calnan

The fear of another deadly terror attack has penetrated itself into all corners of the Kenyan community and beyond. Mombasa Airport lies empty as the plane touches down on the runway. A few passengers gather their belongings to disembark, but the majority remain on the plane to travel onwards to Kilimanjaro. Hotels are empty, security guards stand at every gate into every shopping mall, supermarket and guest house, cars and bags are regularly checked and the once popular urban centre of Mombasa is void of happy snappers.

The Indian Ocean coastal town used to be a hotspot for honeymoons with the southern beaches of Kenya described as 'paradise' and the largest national park in Africa, the Serengeti, rated highly for safari trips in neighbouring Tanzania.

But now is the time to stay in a five-star beachfront villa, one local tells me, because the rates are the cheapest they've ever been. Game park reserves in the area have also reported a sudden decline in safari tourism.

Staff at the hotel I stay in, just a few minutes from the centre of Mombasa town, set more than 20 tables for breakfast each morning but less than a handful are occupied.

Most developed countries, including Ireland, currently have a travel advisory against visiting Mombasa and parts of Nairobi.

Tourists have been cancelling their trips after Islamic extremists killed 148 people on the Garissa University campus 200km from the Somalia border on April 2 this year. Somalia-based militant terror group Al-Shabaab, which is aligned with al-Qa'ida, has claimed responsibility for the massacre.

It was a brutal reminder to Kenyans that they are living under the constant threat of terrorism. The merciless attack saw 148 college students ambushed by terrorists as they walked through the campus to attend an early morning mass or to catch a few hours of study before classes began.

It is now, a few weeks after the attack, that students and members of the university staff have come forward with their chilling stories of how the failure to set an alarm clock or the choice to take a detour through the university saved their lives.

The mass slaughter was the biggest the East African country suffered since the Westgate Mall three-day siege which killed 67 in September 2013. And the Kenyan people are now living in fear of another attack.

'Up your game on security' the front of 'Daily Nation' newspaper shouts one morning as bishops plead with president Uhuru Kenyatta to bolster security in churches and religious institutions.

The Daily Nation isn't alone - the constant terror threat is the subject of front pages, radio programme discussions and television ticker alerts. Local media report how a student died on the Kikuyu campus of Nairobi University last month after a terrorist scare was sparked by exploding faulty electricity cables.

More than 100 others were injured in the stampede. Some terrified students jumped from windows during the early morning incident.

Just a fortnight ago, staff at the Maua Methodist hospital in the Meru Province were forced to say goodbye to eight young talented medics as the international students took their embassies' advice and returned home to the US and China.

A memorial service for the Garissa University attack victims took place last week amid calls for more action to curb terrorism.

Kenyan archbishop Aliud Wabukala spoke at the service and said the victims deserve not to be forgotten: "We should not continue to condone the culture of short term memory," he said. "This attack is an event which should not be forgotten, those who lost loved ones should get justice."

Back in the country's universities, there are calls for paramilitary training so students can defend themselves if faced with an attack. The Government say they will increase money for the police and military in the next budget.

Promises of safety are being made, but it seems that locals living in fear have yet to be convinced.

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

Irish Independent

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