For more than 20 years, 46-year-old Shukri Farah has worked as a driver of buses plying the Mandera-Nairobi route. He, however, says Monday’s events will forever remain etched in his mind. He was transporting more than 60 passengers from Nairobi on a journey that started at 11.00 am.
They were in a bus labelled Makkah, and he recalls how the passengers were engaged in animated conversation, as is typical of long-distance drivers.
“When you are travelling for many hours on rough terrain like the one we use, you feel the urge to talk to each other because you have nothing else to do. We were like a small family really,” said Farah, popularly known as Abdi. However, their journey was suddenly interrupted when three men sprang from a bush just a few kilometres from Mandera town. The men were wearing military fatigues and their faces were completely covered in black scarves.
The driver said for a moment, he thought they were police officers, thus he slowed down and halted near one of the men who was waving frantically at him.
“Get out and tell everyone to disembark,” the man ordered.
It is at that point that it dawned on him that the men were not security officers but members of the outlawed Al-Shabaab militia. “I did not move. Instead, I kept the door locked and tried to speed off,” he said.
The men shot in the air a few times and he was forced to stop and open the door. They showed him their guns and one of them pointed at his neck, telling him to tell the passengers to identify non-Muslims.
All the passengers fell silent. The men shouted the orders again, but none of the commuters uttered a word. They moved towards the passengers’ door and while they were manoeuvring their way, the driver says he whispered some orders to the passengers, something he believes might have saved a lot of lives.
“I told the Muslim sisters who had Hijabs to give them to the non-muslims. The ones who had not covered their hair got ‘shukas’ to do so in the darkness of the bus while the Al-Shabaab militia were trying to nudge the door open,” he explained.
Abdirashid Adan, 19, was one of the people who were seated by the door as the event unfolded. The Form Four student at Al Sadik High School explained that as the attackers tried opening the door, they got impatient and started shooting indiscriminately. Four bullets hit him instantly and he pushed his way out of the bus.
Several other passengers followed as the attackers continued shouting that non-Muslims should separate themselves from the Muslims.
“I told them: But we are all Muslims my brother. I just kept saying that because I knew if I said anything different, they would kill a lot of people,” said Adan.
James Ouma, a mechanic who always travels in the bus looks back and says he can only sum it up as a story that shows how unity carried the day in the face of imminent death.
“When I heard them saying they wanted non-Muslims to step aside, I knew my end had come. Then I heard Muslims protecting us and some even gave their caps to those of us who had none. I realised we were together in this,” said Ouma.
He added that it took courage and solidarity, and in the end, a lot of lives were saved.
The statement is echoed by Salah Farah, deputy head teacher of Mandera Primary School who was shot two times in the back. He says when the gunmen told them to move, they remained still and dared them to shoot because they were not going to separate from the other passengers.
He further said he wears his bullet wounds as a badge – a testament to anyone who dares to say Muslim is a religion of war – to look at him and see what the real meaning of religion is.
“Religion should be all about looking after one another. That is what I did,” he said as he grimaced in pain.
Mandera County Health Executive Sheik Mohamed, who was at the Mandera Hospital to visit the patients injured during the attack, said a new story is being woven, not only for Garissa, but the entire world.
“Terrorism affects the whole world. So, when people step up and fight them in all corners, it means a revolution is happening,” he said.