Bomb blast anniversary: Photojournalist Jacob Otieno on the day Nairobi would rather forget

Jacob Otieno, a veteran Photo Journalist who covered the 1998 bomb blast in Nairobi narrates what happened on that disastrous day 22 years later. (Collins Oduor Standard)

Jacob, tell us where you were when it happened?

I was actually off duty that day and had spent the better part of the morning in my house at Donholm. I had planned to go to town and the turn of events started the moment I boarded a matatu to town.

Everything looked unusual and almost everyone I had seen along the streets seemed restless. When we were at Jogoo Road, I noticed several vehicles making U-turns while some people were running towards town.

By then, none of the passengers we were with knew what had happened. My journalist’s instinct kicked in and I was more than eager to know what could have happened. I remember someone shouting “ni kubaya” (It’s terrible). 

When we reached Likoni Road, the vehicle I had boarded opted to turn around and head the opposite direction because everyone was now scared. I alighted and ran to our office which was located ion the same Likoni Road.

At the office, I was directed by my boss to climb up to the last floor of the building and take a glimpse of what could have been happening.

From where I stood, I could see thick, huge smoke billowing into the sky.

It took us several minutes to know that it was actually a bomb blast. A few minutes later I was directed to rush to Wilson Airport where we took a helicopter and flew towards the US embassy where the tragedy had happened.

What was the scene like?

It was heartbreaking. In my career as a photojournalist that is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have ever witnessed.

From up, I could see the extent of the damage as people struggled to rescue those that had sustained injuries from the blast.

 I used my camera to zoom and took several aerial shots of the horrific scene. A huge thick cloud and falling glass could be seen in the US Embassy Building.

After taking the aerial shots, the helicopter landed and I could now see the extent of the devastation from the ground.

There was blood everywhere and bodies scattered around the embassy. Several vehicles were still on fire and people were screaming all over. It was a terrible scene. Some of the victims were nursing glass cuts.

This was the sight in Nairobi after a bomb went off blowing up buildings and injuring people in 1998. [File, Standard]

The newsroom must have been a mad house. Screaming editors ...  tell us how it was. Anything that is permanently etched on your mind?

It was hectic. The newsroom was buzzing with activity from the moment word started going round that something had happened in town. The editors raced against time to produce an early edition to give Kenyans a glimpse of what had taken place. Everyone was edging on their seats and I remember how our editors screamed orders and quickly assembled our team to cover the unfortunate incident that left several of our brothers and sisters dead.  It was actually our managing editor who managed to even get us a helicopter to enable us to get exclusive pictures.

 Nairobi.... in your words, how did the streets look like?

An atmosphere of blood, death and agony filled the streets. It was devastating. The chaos and confusion that had followed the blast was immense. Back then we did not have organized structures to help in responding to such tragedies and as a result Kenyans were largely for themselves.

The thing that stood out was how Kenyans became united in the wake of the blast. Almost everyone I saw on the streets was willing to do something to help the victims of the blast and I could see some people even using hand carts to ferry the injured victims. Some people also used their vehicles to ferry the injured to hospitals and it was one united Kenya.

The days that followed, Kenyans in their numbers lined up to donate blood to assist the victims of the blast.

What's that memorable shot you took?

There are several shots that I took that are memorable. One of them is a shot I took when the US ambassador Prudence Bushnell was being carried by security detail. However most of the iconic shots I took were the aerial. They captured the scenes explicitly.

All those charred bodies, blood and burnt-out vehicles, how did it affect you psychologically?

At the time I did not feel anything but later I felt the trauma of witnessing the horrific scenes. It happens to a lot of journalists who at the time only think of getting exclusive shots. You only feel the effect after the coverage and sometimes it stays in your mind forever. Honestly, I felt the trauma afterwards and it was worse when I covered some five successive anniversaries of the bomb blast.

 How did you rate your pictures as compared to foreign correspondents?

I took some of the best pictures and even some international journalists also bought some of the pictures from the Standard Group especially the exclusive shots I took from the helicopter. I believe I took some of the best pictures during the incident and the aftermath of it.

Do you keep some of the memorable pictures?

Yes. I have kept some of the pictures but most of them are in archives of the Standard Group.