It’s 7th August 1998. You are heavily pregnant. You go to work as usual. Since it’s a Friday you are looking forward to a restful weekend.
As you go about your business, around 10:30am you hear a blast. Its sheer force pushes you to the floor; shards of glass fly all over. The air is filled with distressing cries and agonizing screams - people are calling mama and their maker. At first you think you are dead, but dead people do not move and hear voices, right?
You get up and try to get out of the building.
You stumble over bodies of people who were your colleagues only moments ago- before 10:30am that morning. You get out of the building, people are running all over, there’s noise, dust, smoke, fire, sirens. The people you meet are screaming with blood all over their faces and on their clothes. And that is when you realize the situation is worse than you thought. You feel wetness on your face, but your mind has not yet registered that it could be blood -you think it’s sweat - and then nothing -you've lost consciousness.
The next time you become aware of your surroundings you are in a hospital bed.
This is an experience that did not leave out expectant women who were caught up in the misfortune of Aug 7 1998 that brought unimaginable grief in the country 25 years ago. Now a generation later they still live with physical and psychological scars but are thankful that the babies they were carrying during the blast are turning 25.
Lilian Munyiva, a survivor of the blast, says that she was working on the 12th floor Co-operative House. The blast happened a month after their offices were moved from Haile Selassie to the pioneer building. Munyiva recalls how her boss, a Mr Kangeta, decided to move her sitting location from the window to a corner, a move that saved her life and that of her unborn child.
“I wondered why he moved me. But I chose to obey. Where he told me to sit was a pillar behind me and that is the pillar that saved my life, because the glasses did not reach me,” she says
Munyiva says that she was in a different world, she did not even hear the second blast.
“Lilian tumekufa (Lilian we have died), one of my colleagues called Shem cried out. Then I realized that I did not have my shoes on, and I had heard that when people die they are normally barefoot so I knew I was in heaven. then I wondered why God did not alert me to say goodbye to my family,” she says
With some assistance she was able to get out of the building, and that is when she realized she had blood all over her body. Her biggest worry was the condition of her unborn child.
She was taken to Kenyatta National Hospital with others who were injured. That was after confirming her child was okay. She decided to go home where her family, friends and neighbours had gathered waiting and praying for her.
Two weeks after the blast, Munyiva says that she knew that would be her burial date because in her culture they bury 2 weeks after the death.
“It was on a Saturday I knew this would be my burial day. I cried so much and told myself I would never cry about the bomb blast again,” She says
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Another survivor, Irene Mwamburi has a similar story.
She was in her office when she heard the first bang. She and her colleague went to peep through the window.
" Msizoee kuchungulia kwa dirisha mtakuja kupigwa risasi ya macho (Don’t get used to peeping out the out the window when you hear gunshots. One day you will be shot)" One of her male colleagues told her before they decided to go back to their desks. But as they turned the second explosion happened.
“When we regained consciousness, I thought the sound was of gun shots and I had been shot. Me and my colleague who was also pregnant decided to move. I thought we were on a hill - it was the remains of our office,” She says.
It was after she managed to pull out that she got a grasp of the whole situation.
“Irene nimekufa? (Irene am I dead) the colleague I was with asked and I assured her that we were alive. We walked out and a man came from the opposite direction telling me that I was bleeding but I told him it’s sweat, he left me alone because he thought I had lost my mind". She says and adds” I saw a man running from cooperative he was running with blood all over. That is when I noticed I was bleeding and now started screaming,”
She was taken to Mater hospital with others rescued. A nurse noticed that she was pregnant and made sure she was taken care of. Before being taken to the ward, the then catholic archbishop Ndingi mwana A’Nzeki prayed for her.
After being bandaged, they could not feel the baby’s heartbeat.
“I had panicked, I thought the baby was dead so I just wanted them to remove her so that I can be alive and take care of my other children, I had 3 children at home” She says
After a list of names was prepared for easy location by loved ones, her husband was able to find her. She would later be discharged. After a month’s rest she went back to work and delivered on 17th September 1998.
The babies the mothers were carrying are not babies any more. They will be turning 25 in a few days and weeks.
A group was formed for them called the silent survivors.
Nancy Mghoi, the daughter of Irene Mwamburi, says that growing up they would call her bomb blast baby. When she was older she decided to enquire about the nickname.
“When I was 12 my mother explained why people used that nickname and I understood what she went through. I feel like a miracle baby,” she says
Another survivor, Lucky Mwema, says that every time someone calls his name or every time he writes his name he knows that this life has been definite gift.
Emmanuel Mwema is another silent survivor, just like Nancy at the age of 12 his mother Lilian Munyiva sat him down and explained how she survived the bomb blast.
“But whenever I met my people they would say oh this is the bomb blast baby. But I feel like it is 25 years of gratitude of health and having my mother around,” He says
Mwema works at the memorial park at the moment as a filmmaker. He documents and tells survivors’ tales.
“I am listening to stories of people who lost too much, I also got to understand the bigger picture. I am really grateful,” He says
Irene says whenever she hears a bang or a blast, it takes her back to 1998. Through counselling after the blast they got encouraged to talk about the experience.
She adds that they still have shards of glasses in their bodies.
“5 years after the blast I would sit, feel an itch on my head and when I scratch it I remove a piece of glass. My children started helping me whenever I felt a swelling. They would come and remove a piece of glass"
She tells The Standard that anyone who was in the bomb blast has scratches all over their body
"We go through issues up to today we still go for day care kind of surgeries. Most of our bodies are full of glasses. it is a norm that we have to deal with” says Munyiva
Munyiva says that expectant women suffered a lot. One had the baby at 4 and a half months and was in an incubator for a while. She says most women went through a lot of trauma. Post-partum depression was not like any other because now you have the trauma of a baby and the trauma of a mother who experienced the bomb blast. "Most women did not go for therapy because you know most of us had babies at home so we did not have time to go for counselling,” says Munyiva and adds “When he was born he was red. So I used to massage him with oil after washing him” says Munyiva.
Dr Saudah Farooqui consultant obstetrician and gynecologist at Nairobi West Hospital says that there is a little bit of data that shows a blast can cause minimal effects to the unborn child.
“The amniotic fluid does protect the baby so to some extent the fluid absorbs the blood effects. Some studies show that the effect is more on the foetus in cephalic position which means the head of the baby is towards the pelvis of the mother", She says.
The closer the pregnancy is to delivery the more the danger the baby is exposed to because they are bigger and the fluid is less.
“Some of these babies may be born with headaches, irritability, and react to sound" Says Dr Farooqui and adds "Some might have some cognitive impairments initially but as they grow up it dies away"
Health care specialist Junior Mukudi says that symptoms of trauma can be physical and mental. Physical trauma can also trigger mental trauma if a person is severely injured- for instance if they are paralysed.
“The process of treatment differs from one patient to another. In case someone relapses they are given time,” he says
Whenever a disaster occurs the first people on the ground experience a different kind of trauma after the fatigue wears off.
Dennis Muthigi an emergency medical service consultant and an emergency responder says that he had seen trauma before but the 1998 bomb blast was beyond expectation. He had a problem sleeping - for quite a while.
“There is no such thing as good sleep after seeing that, for some time even after the bomb blast I had some reflections, particularly recalling the deaths, the faces, it stayed there for a while but it has eventually gone away. I used my training to handle that situation, we had joint counselling sessions,” He says
Dennis says that whenever they rescued someone after a day or 72 hours it brought comfort.
Another first responder, Paul Wachiuri, remembers the blast vividly because he had just turned 19 a day before. Being a young volunteer at St. John's ambulance at no point did he expect a disaster of that magnitude.
Paul says that at the time the country did not have enough ambulances. They got help from volunteers who offered their vehicles to transport the injured.
“Most victims had nails, shards of glass on them. There was a lot of flying debris that caused a lot of damage. Naturally when you hear a blast you look upwards. Most of them had eye injuries. As a young responder it was the first time I experienced that kind of disaster. It was raw,” says Paul
During a disaster, street families are often the untrained first responders. Ronny Wairioko who was just a teenager and a street kid in 1998, was among the people who volunteered in the rescue mission.
“We heard the first blast, then the second one. After the second explosion we saw debris in air. We saw papers flying, we thought it was money. What we saw is stuck in my mind to date,” He says
Ronny says that they saw a bus. The driver was dead lying on the steering wheel.
“We had no gloves but we removed around 30 people in the bus. The rescue team came and we continued with the rescue mission,”
He says that the most traumatic scenes were the sight of the many bodies.
“There was an expectant woman under a bus, we wanted to help her but when we got closer we realized she was dead. The rescue mission was traumatizing, there was someone on the bus with a metal in his chest, we saw things that will forever be stuck in our minds,” He says
Renowned photojournalist Jacob Otieno was off duty on that day and had spent the better part of the morning in his house. But he decided to run errands in town and that is when he was met with commotion and a scene that is still the most heartbreaking he had laid eyes on.
"When we were at Jogoo Road, I noticed several vehicles making U-turns while some people were running towards town. My journalist’s instinct kicked in and I was more than eager to know what could have happened. When we reached Likoni Road, the vehicle I had boarded opted to turn around and head the opposite direction. Everyone was now scared. I alighted and ran to our office on Likoni Road" He says.
Jacob was directed by his boss to rush to Wilson Airport where they took a helicopter and flew towards the US embassy where the tragedy had happened.
The newsroom was buzzing with activity from the moment word went 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.
Some of the photos he took are of the then Minister Joseph Kamotho who had a meeting with the American ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell.
During this interview Jacob let tears flow as he remembered Rose Wanjiku also known as Kenya's candle in the wind. She got stuck in the rubble of Ufundi House for 3 days and died on the last day.
"We could hear Rose talk, we could talk to her, the security team could talk to her." Jacob now retired tells This writer, " The rescuers could talk to her."
He pauses trying to compose himself. " But she did not survive. A team from Israel came and removed her body," He says
Jacob says that Rose had been communicating until her voice could not be heard anymore.