Garissa, Kenya - Eliud Mue is a man carrying a heavy burden for his short frame. Mue was tasked with a job many refused to take on: He is the pastor of a church in Garissa, a mainly Muslim town in the arid north of Kenya, not far from the porous Somalia-Kenya border.
The town, on the banks of the river Tana, has a bloody recent history. On July 1, 2012, Sunday church service was in full swing on a sunny morning - like any other in this part of the East African country - when four masked, heavily armed men entered the church compound. They first shot the two police officers guarding the church and then killed 15 worshippers inside the church.
Dozens of others were wounded, some seriously. More than 200 people were inside when the attack took place.
The then-pastor of the church, who was not from this part of Kenya, survived but was so traumatised he left soon after, never to return to Garissa again. The Africa Inland Church remained without a pastor for seven months until Mue, a bespectacled man full of life, was appointed to the job.
"Nobody wanted to be posted here," he said, his deep voice echoing in the empty prayer hall. "The fear and tension was real and too much. Pastors will rather resign from the church than come to Garissa. It is a miracle I accepted to come here."
Before the attack we used to get more than 200 worshippers every Sunday, now we don't get half of that.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but most believe the assailants were linked to the hardline al-Shabab group in Somalia, with the border about 195km away.
Al-Shabab and local sympathisers - which want the implementation of Islamic law and the creation of an Islamic state - have carried out multiple attacks in Kenya, in revenge for the Kenyan army's intervention in Somalia to crush the Islamist rebels.
Some Kenyans have questioned the government's deployment of troops, saying their security has been compromised ever since.
Staying home to pray
Fresh paint covers most of the damage done that day, but bullet holes in the church's support poles are visible reminders to those who come to worship. Twenty-two months after the attack, members of the church remain fearful of coming to pray.
"Before the attack we used to get more than 200 worshippers every Sunday, now we don't get half of that. Many of our members were effected during the attack. Many ran away and never came back," the soft-spoken pastor said.
"They said they did not want to be associated with the church. They said they better stay at home and pray there instead of the church."
The story is a similar one in the town's 24 other registered churches. St Mary's Catholic Church is one of the oldest in Garissa, built in the 1960s soon after Kenya gained independence from Britain.
The same day the Africa Inland Church was attacked, a grenade was hurled at St Mary's as prayers were held inside. Three people were wounded.
Before the attack, St Mary's used to open its doors each Sunday to more than 700 worshippers. But the church, the biggest in northern Kenya, now has a congregation of some 200 - many stay away fearing more attacks.
'Walking with death'
"Long back, it was better because people could move freely. Now it is hard," Sister Evelyn, who recently transferred from Malawi to Garissa, told Al Jazeera.
|A Kenyan soldier checks IDs in Garissa at the scene of a July 1, 2012 church massacre [Ahmed Farah/Al Jazeera]
"Even as they come to church they wonder how they will reach home. It is like you are just walking with your death," she said, a bible pressed against her chest. "Before you reach your house, you tell yourself, 'God, please help me reach that house where I came from.'"
Church-goers used to linger outside after the service to talk and to catch up, but now the compound empties in minutes.
"Before, life was good and we could walk [the] town freely, any time. We were happy, but not now," Estella Kageni, a civil servant who has lived in the town for 14 years, told Al Jazeera before rushing home after the service.
"Since the KDF [Kenya Defence Forces] went into Somalia, life has changed."
Blaming Somalia-based al-Shabab for a spate of kidnappings of foreign nationals in its territory, Kenya sent troops into the country in October 2011.
Explosions and shootings were rare in Garissa, but soon after Kenya intervened in Somalia, the number of attacks here shot up - with churches becoming a prime target for unknown assailants.
Cost of intervention
Businesses also paid a heavy price for the insecurity.
"It has affected me badly. Before the Kenya Defence Forces went into Somalia there was a lot of business, a lot of activities, but since they went there everything came down," David Mawira Meriti, a trader in the town, told Al Jazeera.
"People in my hometown of Meru, when they call me they ask why I'm still in Garissa. Business and security are both not good," he added.
We should not have to worship with armed soldiers watching over us. This is not right. What did we do to anyone to deserve this?
Kenya's government responded to the assaults on churches and worshippers by deploying armed officers to guard them during prayer times - a measure not welcomed by some church leaders.
"We should not have to worship with armed soldiers watching over us. This is not right. What did we do to anyone to deserve this?" said Father Nicholas Mutua of St Mary's Catholic Church.
But the newly appointed area security chief said the government is tackling the issue head-on.
"We take security very seriously. We have increased patrols and beats and provided additional personnel and vehicles to ensure everyone is safe here in Garissa," Harun Khator, Garissa county commissioner, told Al Jazeera, adding the government has also bolstered intelligence gathering in the county.
As security forces in Garissa scramble to prevent future attacks on churches and businesses, worshippers at St Mary's Catholic Church just want an end to "Operation Linda Nchi" - Swahili for "protect the country" - as the incursion into Somalia to target al-Shabab has been called.
"It has only made our lives here worse. Our lives were very good before. We used to come to church at night to pray - now that is not possible," said the civil servant Kageni.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa
Source: Al Jazeera