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NAIROBI, Kenya – He was a soccer player with a fighting spirit, a talented keyboard player with "golden fingers" who was intent on succeeding in life, his guardian said. But Bryson Mwakuleghwa, a 21-year-old student at Garissa University College in Kenya, never had the chance to make his dreams happen.
Mwakuleghwa was among 148 people who were killed in an attack by Islamic militants Thursday on the college in Garissa, near the border with Somalia, where the al-Shabab extremist group is based. On Monday, relatives of the dead converged on a funeral parlor in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, for the grim task of identifying the dead. Some grieved quietly, while others emerged from viewing bodies of lost family members in physical distress, wailing as Red Cross officials escorted and even carried them to tents for counseling.
Several mourners interviewed by The Associated Press outside the Chiromo Funeral Parlour of the University of Nairobi spoke wistfully of those they lost, sometimes using the same words — humble, devout, studious and a role model — to describe youths who were trying hard to forge a career, leaving home and traveling many hours by bus to Garissa to take advantage of the education opportunities there.
"I knew Bryson as a young man who grew up in the church" and performed in its choir, said his guardian, Ginton Mwachofi.
The young man's death hit hard in Taita-Taveta, the coastal county where he grew up, Mwachofi said.
"It was a big blow for the people of Taita-Taveta because we don't have enough people studying in university," said the guardian, who also coached the youth in soccer. "They can't believe that Bryson is no more."
Mwakuleghwa, who was studying education, was a stoic who rarely revealed whether he was happy or sad, hungry or thirsty, Mwachofi said.
Four gunmen died in Thursday's attack after security forces entered the campus to stop the slaughter of the students. Survivors said the gunmen targeted Christians and said they would spare Muslims and women, though there were numerous accounts of indiscriminate shooting.
Virginia Simiyu, who was 24 years old when she died in the attack, was a long-distance runner on her high school team, a leader of a Christian group at the Garissa college and was "born to be nice," said her aunt, Phyllis Wabuke. Simiyu, a student of "human resource management," was also a role model to her three younger siblings and promised her mother that she would help lift the family out of poverty once she got a job, Wabuke said.
"'Mama, I'll build you a house,'" Wabuke quoted Simiyu as telling her mother. According to Wabuke, Simiyu's mother had hopes for her oldest child, saying: "'If this one makes it, my life will be different.'"
Now Simiyu's mother is "broken down" with grief and "is not in a state of mind that would recognize anything now," Wabuke said. The mother is sometimes tied down with ropes to control her hysteria and is being counseled by professional helpers, she said.
Another 21-year-old victim, Romana Chelagat Sambu, was studying commerce at the Garissa college and "had a vision of finishing her education," said her uncle, David Tomno Ngetich. Sambu was focused, could endure hardship and was good at "talking to people" about responsibility and the Christian faith, he said.
The last time Ngetich saw his niece was several months ago in Nairobi before she headed to Garissa to resume her studies. He recalled that his wife noticed his niece was wearing nice sandals and asked her to bring back a pair on her return from Garissa.
Despite periodic shrieks from weeping, collapsing family members, the scene outside the funeral home was relatively calm as people waited their turn to enter the building or sat quietly outside on plastic chairs.
"If there is anybody amongst us who has not gone through the identification, kindly come," a voice said over a loudspeaker. The pungent smell of the bodies wafted in the breeze around the building and some people wore surgical masks to ward off the odor.
A sign on the building said: "Body Reception. Embalming Laboratory. Cold Storage Room."
Mwachofi last saw Bryson, the young pianist with "golden fingers," at Christmas.
The guardian recalled: "He promised that he would succeed, that he would do anything possible to succeed in life."