KENYA

How a terrorism drill turned deadly at Kenyan university

Students and staff trying to flee Strathmore University by climbing out the windows.
Students and staff trying to flee Strathmore University by climbing out the windows.

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Gunshots, smoke, and masked attackers: the terrorism drill that police carried out Monday at Strathmore University in Kenya looked and sounded like the real deal. So much so that students believed it was really a terrorist attack, and panicked. As a result, one person died and 40 were injured after jumping out windows.

At around noon, four men, armed and dressed like Al Shabaab terrorists, entered the private university’s campus. They were actually actors, tasked with simulating an attack resembling the one on Garissa University last April. But there was a major problem: none of the students had been told about this drill. Nor had the university’s staff, save for a few campus security officers who had organised the operation with local police, according to Betty Ngara, the university’s spokeswoman.

“We stayed on the roof for an hour, panicked”

Robert (not his real name) is a student at Strathmore University.

I was in the Student Centre, which is the first building that the ‘terrorists’ entered. There were many students inside, studying for exams. I heard gunshots, and saw three men, dressed all in white, with their heads covered in red and white keffiehs. They were holding automatic rifles. From videos I have seen, that’s what Al Shabaab gunmen look like.

Like everyone else, I tried to flee, but the exit was blocked by too many people trying to get out all at once. With about 20 other students, we ran up the stairs and hid on the roof. We lay down on our stomachs. We were panicked; girls were crying and screaming. We tried to calm them down and think – since the stairwells are quite small, we thought maybe we could push back the terrorists. We were trying to figure out how to build makeshift weapons when a university employee came up and told us that it was all just a drill. We had been on the roof for nearly an hour… We followed him back downstairs and looked around the student centre. There was no trace of blood, just a few broken objects.

Shattered glass on campus after the failed drill. Photo taken by our Observer Anna. 

A 33-year-old woman, who fell from the third story, died in the hospital. Asked why students weren’t immediately informed the exercise was a drill once they panicked, the university spokeswoman said this was a “communication error”. She added that “the majority” of students and staff had previously received training in how to respond to a terrorist attack, and that this drill was meant to test what they had learned.

According to Anna (not her real name), who is also a student at Strathmore University, this training was minimal.

“It’s just crazy that most of the staff didn’t know what was going on”

Last month, campus security staff spent an hour explaining that basically, if there was an attack, we had to flee, hide, and not help others…Not exactly useful information!

To me, the police are responsible for this fiasco. On Sunday, they posted a message on their Facebook page saying there would soon be a drill at a university. But they didn’t say which one. I’m also mad at the university – it’s just crazy that most of the staff weren’t told what was going on, and that it took an hour until students were told that it was only a drill.

Kenya’s interior ministry didn’t respond to France 24’s request for comment. In a statement, the Kenyan police apologised for the tragedy and said that an investigation had been launched to determine what went wrong.

Kenya has repeatedly been targeted by Somali Al Shabaab terrorists, who have notably claimed responsibility for the attacks on Nairobi’s Westgate mall and on Garissa University.

Students and staff trying to flee through windows. Photo posted on Twitter by WaKimuyu.

Photo posted on Twitter by Gidi Ogidi.

This young woman was injured after trying to escape through a window. Photo taken by our Observer Anna.