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September 24, 2018

1998 Bomb blast: Painful memories as families pursue compensation

Rescue workers
and firemen
remove bodies
from rubble near
the US Embassy
in Nairobi
after the twin
bombings on
August 7, 1998
/FILE
Rescue workers and firemen remove bodies from rubble near the US Embassy in Nairobi after the twin bombings on August 7, 1998 /FILE

As Kenya marks 20 years after the twin bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam, to survivors and victims of the attack, it rekindles memories of pain and dashed hopes.

On August 7, 1998, Ali Mwadama was depositing cheques as pay from voiceovers at National Bank of Kenya, which was then housed at Development House on Moi Avenue Road, opposite the embassy building.

Mwadama was 49 then, and all he remembers is waking up in hospital. “Since that time my life has changed for the worse. What we saw and went through is painful. You can never wish it even to your worst enemy. But 20 years later, all we can show for it is scars of injuries, loss of livelihood, frustrations and a series of unfulfilled promises,” he said.

Mwadama, now 69, chairs the August 7 Bomb Blast Victims Association Kenya. The association has over 350 members, mainly based in Nairobi.

“There are other splinter associations and there are even some victims who are not affiliated to any of us because either they gave up or they cannot fathom the memories or they reside outside Nairobi. That's why we can't have the exact number of all survivors and victims,” he said.

The attack left 224 people dead and over 5,000 injured, and still stands as the deadliest terror attack in Kenyan history. 

Among those who perished were Evanson Gitu's wife, who had gone to pick her visa. They had planned to travel to the US to attend a pastor's conference.

“I was to accompany my wife that morning to the embassy. I felt lazy and couldn't prepare on time to accompany her. I told her to just go as I rolled on my bed because I had already received my visa. That was the last time I saw her,” Gitu, 62, said.

“Her death devastated us. To this date we have not recovered. But the memorial gives a chance to remember and make a prayer for those who perished. She was beautiful and had just completed her computer course diploma.”

The couple had been married for 18 years. She left him with four children, who are now all grown up. Gitu said there over are over 300 victims who lost their loved ones at the embassy.

Mwadama said both the US and Kenya have forgotten about them. “The only time we are remembered is when the memorial is around the corner. Promises are given but they end with silence for a whole year for another to be made. Now for 20 years, we have lived through false promise and hope,” he said. 

SEARCH FOR CLOSURE

Despite having many of their members with shattered lives, blinded, crippled and some on constant medication and unable to fend for themselves, Mwadama said the US government has ignored their cries for restitution.

The US Agency for International Development provided about Sh4.5 billion (USD45 million) to families of about 200 Kenyans killed or injured in the attack.

“This wasn’t compensation. It was money they wired directly to organisations like Amref, Kenya Red Cross and others, which in turn were paying medical bills for survivors and victims of the attack. None went towards helping them rebuild their livelihood or compensate loss of livelihood,” Mwadama said.

Even though compensation will not bring back the lives of those who were lost, Gitu said it will help bring closure to victims and survivors.

Mwadama said some his members have metal implants. Others have been paralysed or are suffering various disabilities, which have hindered them from performing even simple tasks.

“Above all, many are in permanent psychological trauma. And just ignoring them beats the doctrine of humanity,” he said. “We filed cases on the same but because we can’t afford legal fees, some of these cases have never began or even been followed through.

“I wish this time round as we remember this day, no one will come to give us empty promises again. I call on the Kenyan government to engage their US counterparts to make sure we are compensated to put this issue to rest. Let it be on humanitarian grounds.”

James Kiragu, the August 7 Memorial Trust chairman, said the event reminds Kenya about its painful past.

The trust runs the August 7 memorial park that sits where the embassy used to be. It works on voluntary basis and doesn't receive support from either the Kenya or the US government. It sustains itself through gate tokens and some corporate donations.

“The idea to create the garden is to keep those memories alive. As well create green space, where the victims and survivors sometime can visit to remember their loved ones, and as well find closure,” he said.

He said the trust members are offering their expertise on the board as part of giving back to society.

“Our highest moment is when we host high-level dignitaries, and our lowest moment is when survivors confront us with issues of compensation, whereas we have no word to tell them,” he said.

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