These Are The Families Left To Reclaim Garissa's Dead

Where terrorism succeeds, parents have a hard time recognizing their own children. BuzzFeed News' Jina Moore reports from Nairobi, Kenya.

NAIROBI — It is Monday afternoon, and Edward Wafula and Emily Namaemba Musebe are missing.

Back at home, in a small village in western Kenya, they are neighbors — the closest kind of neighbors in the sprawling rural countryside, the kind whose families live on the same footpath. Edward and Emily are roughly the same age, and good friends, and Edward’s family is practically Emily’s family, and vice versa. They both study at the same school, far from home, in a sweltering, arid place called Garissa.

They’re both leaders, there in Garissa, and teachers. Edward is the treasurer of the Christian Union, and Emily is the group’s praise leader. They both teach part-time in the local schools, to make some pocket money and to lend a hand. Garissa is at the end of Kenya, the last town before the refugee camp of Dadaab and the border with Somalia, and it doesn’t have many teachers or doctors who haven’t come from somewhere else.

If the memories of friends and family are a good guide, Garissa is not an especially easy place for outsiders. It’s mind-bendingly hot. Water is scarce. When there are vegetables, they aren’t fresh. Most of the people are Muslim, and most of the women are covered, and the gospel-singing life of Christian praise and fellowship that Emily and Edward are devoted to mostly happens on campus. It’s hard to find students who remember being excited about going to Garissa, but they’d wanted to study, and you make the best of where you’re sent.

Emily sends her small classroom earnings home to her mother, so that she’ll always have money in her pocket for sugar, and when the time comes for her little cousin’s next term at primary school, it’s $25 from Emily that covers most of the expenses.

These are the things Emily’s brother George remembers as he sits outside a mortuary, several hundred miles from his home, wondering if Emily is alive.

Inside, there are 144 bodies, nearly all of them students killed in an attack on Garissa University’s students by al-Shabaab militants. Four gunmen stormed the campus in the early-morning hours of April 2, shooting students wherever they were to be found — sleeping in their beds or looking for water or holding hands in a morning prayer circle, or later, hiding in closets or under beds or in toilets.

They shot indiscriminately in some places, like the Christian Union’s morning prayer meeting, and they shot carefully in others, separating Christian from Muslim students with religious trivia in some places, separating boys from girls in others. In one spot, at least, the gunmen rounded up students from their rooms and brought them downstairs, made them lie on the ground, and shot them through the head.

The story of what happened that morning is still incomplete, but those are some of the things some survivors remember. By the end of the day, 148 people had been killed at Garissa University.

This story, though, is about the days that came after — the dozens and dozens of hours idling by as hundreds of family members wait, under tents in the parking lot of the Chiromo Funeral Parlor in Nairobi, to find out which of the bodies inside belongs to them.

It’s the story of George searching through 144 corpses for his sister Emily, and it’s the story of Edward’s uncle, Kitui Satia, looking for his nephew.

It’s the story of Frederick Echesa Waburaka looking for his son Kennedy, trying to know which is his boy by a gap in his teeth, and Evelynne Nafula trying to recognize her sister’s toes.

It’s the story of how hard it is to know your own dead, when their faces have been mutilated by terrorists and their bodies have been rotting in the heat — the story of mothers studying fingernails, of fathers interrogating what’s left of cheekbones, of living sisters lifting their ankles to compare the shape of their feet to a corpse.

Is this my sister?

Is that my son?

This is the story of Kenyans coming to claim their dead.

It would have been easy to know Emily Namaemba when she was alive. She’d be the one on the soccer pitch, running circles around the other competitors, or surrounded by friends. She had so, so many friends, George remembers. But probably if she wasn’t studying, she’d be singing gospel songs with her praise group.

Edward Wafula was the one who liked sharing, and liked giving advice. He’d offer friends a portion of whatever it was he happened to have, they remember, and he’d end quarrels between roommates or counsel friends so gently they didn’t even notice what he was doing.

Kennedy Ouma Echesa would’ve been the one with a book. He loved reading, loved history, loved the theory of things. He’d never need Edward’s counsel, because he’d never be the one arguing. “He is a boy who never knew what a quarrel was,” his father remembers. Kennedy wanted to be a professor.

None of these intimacies made it easier for their families to find them.

The families went first to Nyayo Stadium, on the south side of Nairobi. The survivors were supposed to arrive on buses on Friday, and their relatives waited to receive them. Many didn’t actually arrive until late on Saturday night. There were lists floating around in the meantime, families recalled, and each checked for the name of their loved one. Many did not find their children’s names.

“Go to Kenyatta,” they said they were told. Kenyatta Hospital, about two miles away, had received the injured airlifted from Garissa, so hopeful families turned up there on Saturday, asking for their kids. Most did not find their names.

“Go to Chiromo,” they said they were told. So they trekked another three miles north to the mortuary.

And that’s where this story of waiting begins. For days, hundreds of families sit under tents in the parking lot of Chiromo Funeral Home, waiting for their turn to go inside and look for the bodies of their loved ones.

There are counselors on hand to help with this peculiarly drawn-out grief, but the families are keeping their distance. A sound system plays soft gospel songs; Kenyan Red Cross volunteers hurry between tents. Police administrators ready colorful case file folders, and a few on-duty security officers, visible by their uniforms, guard the gates. A registration book floating around suggests there may also be plainclothes members of Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit moving about.

Outside the mortuary, things are organized, even calm. Inside, though, there’s confusion.

“The bodies are not in good order; they are not arranged well,” Frederick Echesa Waburaka, the father of Kennedy, said on Monday afternoon. “Somebody lies on top of this one, somebody on top of another one. It’s giving [us] some fear. People view very quickly and just start off.”

This mortuary wasn’t built for so many dead. There isn’t enough refrigeration for them, and there’s no place to put them except on the floor. Even by Monday, there are still 18 bodies that hadn’t been embalmed. Every day, by the late afternoon, the smell of corpses spreads across the parking lot, thickening with the hour. Anyone who has recently been inside wears a surgical mask, or a dust mask, around the throat like a necklace.

When a family finds a body, a woman’s shriek breaks the sky. She’s carried by Red Cross volunteers to a grief tent, each arm draped over a volunteer’s shoulder, and her feet sometimes carried by another pair of volunteers. Her own body twists and cramps with heartbreak; she screams, breathless, as if she is drowning.

The scene repeats dozens of times in a day.

But now it’s Monday afternoon, and Waburaka and his wife are arguing about which of the bodies is their son. The day before, Waburaka thought he recognized Kennedy in the mortuary.

“I looked at the foreface,” Waburaka said, gesturing down the left side of his own face. “It could be his.” But the mouth wasn’t right. “When I look at the teeth, there’s a gap [that should be] there. But he was shot in the mouth. Possibly shaking the teeth? So maybe the gap isn’t there now.”

There is the body that could be Kennedy’s, and then there is the picture of a body that could also be Kennedy’s. At the university, before being moved to Nairobi, the bodies had been labeled and photographed where they’d fallen. Waburaka saw a body in one of those photographs that he thought was his son. And his wife agreed with that much, at least.

But the label in the photo was no longer with the body, a fact that would repeat from family to family to family, creating enormous confusion and tension. And the body that Waburaka thought belonged to the photograph — the body that Waburaka thought belonged to Kennedy — was not a body his wife said she knew.

“She says the picture is not matching the body it’s supposed to be,” Waburaka said. She insisted that the corpse Waburaka had found was not her son.

“We in the African societies — for us, mothers are very close to their children,” he said. “From the time of washing them through growing they know all the physical changes of the body. So she could be right. Or I could be right.”

There is the body that could be Kennedy’s, and then there is the picture of a body that could also be Kennedy’s.

On that Monday afternoon, Emily’s brother, George, is going through something similar, except that George isn't sure about those photographs, either. He and his other sister, Evelynne, had looked on Saturday, and they’d looked on Sunday. They were trying to find someone whose foot looked like Emily’s, and they moved girl by girl, comparing the ankles to Evelynne’s.

“We entered and saw what we were to see,” George said, “and came out with no results.”

They were told to wait half an hour for fingerprints. But it’s now around 2 p.m., and Emily is still missing.

So is her friend Edward Wafula, whose family is in a similar situation, and so are dozens of others.

But there’s no one from the government here to offer condolences or share information. “I’ve never been attended by any government person — never seen a single person,” Waburaka says. He also hasn’t met any administrators from the university Kennedy attended (though the dean of students would appear later that night). “They’re leaving me only to work and to search for myself. They have my phone number, but I’ve never been called.”

By now, he’s also stopped hoping Kennedy will call. On the day of the massacre, a cousin called Kennedy, 21 times. It’s there, logged in the phone. On the 21st call, Kennedy answered, whispering only, “We are under attack.” The phone’s been shut off since.

“I don’t think — if he’s still alive and it happened that he lost his phone, he knows his friends' numbers, he knows my number,” Waburaka reasoned. “He could send a message to show, ‘I am here.’"

And so Waburaka knows what he’s waiting for.

“In Africa,” Waburaka says, “we must take our blood home.”

But Emily and Edward’s families — they’re still not sure.

It’s clear to the families that visual identification will never work, and they’re told that the corpses will be fingerprinted and the fingerprints will be run against the national identification database, finalizing with biometric matches where human recognition has failed.

When a match like this is made, it’s announced.

Tag number six-one-one, Lucy Nyambura. Tag number six-one-one, the family of Lucy Nyambura.

Then a family gathers, and they’re asked to come back into the mortuary, to view the body the data says is their loved one. When they accept, they authorize a postmortem: Though the cause of death is no mystery, every student has to have a file on record with the criminal investigators, for legal reasons. Those files read more or less the same: “On the 2nd of April 2015 at around 5:30 a.m., the deceased is certified to have been gunned down by terrorists.”

Monica Ngwasi Mutindi, tag number five-seven-two. The family of Monica Ngwasi Mutindi, tag number five-seven-two.

By Tuesday, things are getting harder. “As you can see, the anxiety is growing. Emotions are very high,” Dr. Sobbie Mulindi, a psychiatrist with the University of Nairobi, which manages the mortuary, tells the press. At this point, 34 students have been recognized by their relatives. Another 64 have been identified by fingerprints.

Meanwhile, lists of survivors circulate, but there’s still no official list of missing or murdered students. In fact, a full week after the massacre, the mortuary’s arrhythmic announcements, a mix of names and tag numbers, would amount to the most complete list of the dead that exists.

Tag number six-three-two. Tag number six-three-two. There are two bodies with the same tag number. One is male, one is female.

Frederick Gitonga, survivor of the massacre and pastor of the school’s Christian Union, is fielding phone calls every day, from every corner of the country.

“Pastor, can you tell me, where is my sister?” he says they ask. “Is she alive or is she dead? We can’t find her among those in the mortuary.”

That’s why Dan Obwamu decided to come to the mortuary. He’d heard most of his classmates hadn’t been claimed, and he thought he could help. “I went in to see my friends,” he said later. “I wanted to see if I could identify them.”

Dan knew, almost encyclopedically, who had lived and who had died. On the morning of the attack, he’d gotten up when it was still dark outside to join the Christian Union’s first prayer, in a classroom building about 500 feet away. Dan left three of his roommates behind, including Edward Wafula. Dan remembered that Edward wasn’t feeling well that morning and stayed in bed.

It was a small group that day, its leaders remember, only 28 people.

They’d just formed a prayer circle around 5:30 a.m. when a man walked in with a gun. He was wearing a face mask and a green uniform, like a police or security officer, Dan remembered, and he carried a serious weapon — not the ordinary AKs some Kenyan police and soldiers carry, but something more like a machine gun, capable of popping off bullets faster than you can count.

He shot once, killing a woman near him. Then he started shoot constantly, Dan remembered, as the students hit the floor. A bullet struck Dan in the arm and he fell; he tried to lay still, but the pain was too much so he stretched out his arm. That caught the gunman’s attention, and he came and shot at Dan again. One bullet lodged in Dan’s shoulder, and another grazed the back of his head, slicing from the nape of his neck to the roundest part of his skull, where it zoomed off in a tangent and hit a chair.

Dan didn’t understand what was happening. What had this room full of peaceful students done to bring on such an attack? He remembers the thoughts racing through his mind: We are innocent. We have nothing to do with politics. What do we owe these people, so they can take it and go? If they just ask for what they want, we can give it to them, and they can not kill us.

But the gunman never asked for something.

“He didn’t say anything,” Dan remembers. “But he laughed after killing everybody.”

After the bullets stopped, the gunman spoke to someone else. "I'm finished here," Dan remembers him saying. "Let's go to the next one." The words rolled out in accentless Kiswahili.

Dan lay still. He kept his eyes shut. By now the gunmen were outside.

He saw one of them looking in the window, at his friends in the prayer room, and he heard voices. The gunmen were talking to students running outside.

“Are you a Muslim?” Dan heard the gunman ask. “If you said yes,” he remembers, “they make you recite something.”

And if no?

“They shoot you.”

He could also hear shooting in the dormitories, about 200 meters away, and he could hear screams. But in the room where he lay, there was silence. Eventually, he lifted his lids.

“I looked around the room to see how my friends are dying,” he remembers. Some were dead. Others were struggling. Only Dan and five others would survive.

Dan remembers lying on the floor for about four hours. Then he saw some soldiers from the Kenyan Defense Forces, the KDF. “We kept quiet until we saw them, and then we shouted that they could rescue us, that we are not dead yet.”

The KDF apparently attracted al-Shabaab’s attention, and Dan remembers shots being fired at the soldiers who were standing in the room with him and his friends. The soldiers dropped to the ground too, Dan said. When they realized they couldn’t risk standing and carrying the survivors to safety, they dragged them across the floor and out of the building.

Dan was taken in an ambulance to Garissa’s public hospital, then flown in a helicopter to Nairobi. He was discharged from Kenyatta Hospital on Saturday, the first of the six who survived the prayer meeting to recover, and on Monday, he went to the mortuary.

He didn’t know who would be there, but when he arrived, he heard that the family of his roommate, Edward, was still searching.

Dan went to help them find the body.

“I knew his T-shirt,” Dan said.

“He didn’t say anything. ... But he laughed after killing everybody.”

Dan found Kitui Satia, Edward’s uncle, on Monday evening. He explained what had happened, and where Edward had been. But it was so late in the day. Satia and his family only wanted to know with their eyes, and to take Edward home — “Nairobi is stressful, it’s very harrowing for rural people,” he said — but the family would have to wait to try again.

By Wednesday, Kitui Satia was relieved. They really had Edward. They’d found the body with a red-checked T-shirt, one that Edward’s father remembered and the same one his roommate said Edward was wearing that morning. Satia recognized the ears — “the ears had not been destroyed,” he said — and the body’s fingernails seemed familiar too.

“We know we have lost,” Satia said, “but we are now better off. Now we can see our person.”

But there was still no official news of Emily, and George and his sister, Evelynne, were coping with the uncertainty very differently.

Evelynne’s grief had broken on Monday, and she’d spent several hours sitting with counselors, mostly speechless, sometimes sobbing. For her, that moment seemed to be the beginning of acceptance.

But George had accepted nothing. He’d been ready to grieve, but the longer he went without information, the more confused he became. Wednesday was his fifth day at the mortuary. He still didn’t know any of these bodies, and there still no fingerprints, either.

George wanted more lists. He wanted to see if Emily’s name appeared on the class roll call the day before the attack. He even wanted to double-check the semester’s registration list. Did anyone know if Emily had been on campus when the attack happened? Could anyone prove to him that she’d been at school at all, for that matter, in the weeks before the attack?

But he couldn’t reach her professors or the university administration. So he sat. He waited. And he was losing patience.

I sat with George on Wednesday, around 6 p.m., while he tried to think of more lists he could ask for.

Reporters don’t belong in their stories except in rare moments; this is one. It had taken me several days to piece together how Emily's and Edward’s families knew one another, and that Dan Obwamu had probably known them both. When I saw George again on Wednesday, Dan was on his way to Chiromo to see Edward’s family.

I told George how Dan had helped find Edward, and I asked if George wanted to meet him. When he said yes, we found Dan.

“Yes, I knew Emily,” Dan told George. “She was my friend. She was also in the CU.”

“You mean, she was in that room in the morning?” George asked.

“No, no, she was not in the prayers,” Dan said. “She was found in the hostel.”

George’s shoulders tugged backward, like a man who’s realized he’s about to slam into a wall or a door, a man who is moving faster than is wise and fights back, with his body, against the speed of the world.

“She was killed?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Dan said softly.

George paused.

“So she was still sleeping?”

“Emily normally woke up very early in the morning,” Dan said. “So maybe she was preparing herself for prayers, or to get water.”

George went quiet, and Dan stood silently with him for a moment. But Dan had other families to find too.

“Are we finished then?” Dan asked gently.

George nodded. They spoke briefly in Kiswahili, and Dan walked away.

“Now,” George said. “Now I am sure. Emily was killed. Since I have been coming here, I thought Emily was alive. But he — he is the very, very person who knows.”

And now George knows too. He knows that Emily is right where everyone had asked him to believe that she was, in one of those crowded rooms in the mortuary behind him.

Now George isn’t looking for Emily anymore.

“Now it’s just looking for fingerprints,” he said.

It’s Thursday afternoon in Nairobi. Many bodies have finally been released to their families. There were prayers but not much pomp; the only government official who spoke was the man from the disaster task force, who advised the families to fight back against terrorists, should they encounter them on the way home.

The coffins are on their way home for burials; on Saturday, there will be funerals across Kenya.

But on Thursday afternoon, a full week after the attack, there are still 14 bodies whose families don’t know them. One of them, probably, is Emily’s.

And her brother George is still waiting — grateful to know, without doubt or hope, what it is he is waiting for.

Skip to footer