Garissa survivor found alive after hiding in wardrobe for two days
Nice and Lovely body lotion is just that to millions of people who use it daily. But one survivor in the Garissa terror attack says she’s alive today because she ate it during a two-day hideout in a wardrobe at the institution.
As terrorists piled bodies of her colleagues, most shot from close range, Cynthia Cherotich, a student from Transmara, hid under a pile of clothes and remained quiet. She played dead.
On Saturday, police officers on routine patrol of Garissa University College stumbled on her still under the pile of clothes in the hostel wardrobe.
As they were pushing piles of suitcases back together, one officer knocked onto something that moved under the clothes.
It was two days after the siege in which 147 people were killed. The rescue operation had been declared over and even security officers had called it a day after long hours seeking survivors and the dead.
Even then, she wasn’t convinced those people standing in the room were not terrorists.
“They called me out. They said; “come out, we are not terrorists. We are the police — the Kenyan police officers,” she recalled on Saturday at Garissa Referral Hospital.
“I told them, “How do I know you are not Al-Shabaab?” They told me they could prove all was well. So they brought in Prof Kiriamiti, one of our lecturers,” she added, as she sipped on a packet of milk and nibbled on cookies that emergency workers had brought her.
It was her first real meal in three days.
She was frail, her hair shaggy and seemingly unkempt. But she was alive… and that is what mattered.
As medics brought her to the hospital lobbies, she couldn’t stand on her own so they held her for support.
It all started on Thursday morning. Cynthia, an English Literature student at the university college, woke up at around 4.30am to have a brief study with her roommate.
They went to one of the lecture halls because there was a fault in the lighting system of their hostel. Exams were to begin next week; so she didn’t want to miss a chance to revise, she said.
“While in the classroom, a group of Christian Union (CU) students came over. They wanted to pray, so they asked us to relocate to another room because ours was larger. We accepted the request. But as we sat down to study, we heard gunshots.
“We didn’t know whether it was police or terrorists but I remember seeing people coming towards us. We decided to run towards the hostels where everybody else was rushing to.”
As attackers descended on the only public university in North Eastern region, students scampered for safety while others hid under beds. Yet others tried to jump over the fence.
The CU members continued with their prayers, and they became the first target. All the 22 in the hall were shot dead.
The assailants battled the police, she recalled. Then they came over to the hostels.
“They first went upstairs where there are two floors. My colleagues ran under the bed. I hid behind the clothes where the bags were and some of my friends threw more clothes on me. I was completely hidden.
Some more students would escape, jumping over the fence. Others simply lay there, pretending to be dead.
“There was blood all over. The terrorists would pile three or four students and shoot them from the top, splashing blood.
“Once they thought they were done, I slowly scooped blood from the dead bodies next to me and smeared it on my face. Then I lay still. They thought I was dead, too,” she narrated.
After hours of battling, the four attackers were killed. And rescuers thought they had pulled out all survivors — so the place was deserted. Soon, hunger started to bite.
“I felt thirsty. I was hungry. I scanned around for any water to drink. Then I saw a container of Nice and Lovely. I decided to drink it.
“I said, “Maybe I may die today. If today is my day (to die), so be it. But I prayed a lot all that time.
On Saturday, her father Johana Timbwol said he had no words to explain the feeling the family had gone through.
“I am so happy that she is alive even as I feel the pain of the other parents who lost their children during their attack. They did not deserve to die,” he said.
He said he would not allow his daughter back to the college if it reopened.
NEVER GOING BACK
“I would rather she stays with me here. Never again will she step there. It would be like driving her to a slaughterhouse,” he said.
The relieved father said that on the morning of the attack, he was planning to go for a meeting at Soget Centre. Just as he had stepped out of his compound, a neighbour who was heading to meet him asked if he had heard about an attack at the university college.
“My radio had not been having batteries, so I had not heard the news that morning. Radio is the only way we can get the news here in Transmara” he said.
“I placed down a small bag that I was carrying, switched on my mobile phone and called my daughter. But she did not answer. I then called my sons in Nairobi who confirmed that there was an attack in her school,” he said.
He says he did not proceed to where he was heading that Thursday. Instead, he bought more batteries so he could follow up on the developments on radio, while he kept trying to call his daughter.
“That morning, I made more than 200 calls to her phone and they were all unanswered. Eventually, at around 10pm, her phone went off,” he said, adding that the whole family stayed awake on the nights of Thursday and Friday.
“I was called by the military and they informed me, at around 1pm on Saturday, that she had been found alive. I spoke with her. She was in tears. She told me that she had survived on body oil.”