Monday this week was the 25th anniversary of the Nairobi terrorist bomb attack that killed over 200 people and left hundreds others seriously injured.
I still remember tragic events of that dark Friday of August 7, 1998. It is the day devils temporarily left hell to camp in Nairobi.
I was News Editor of The Star, a weekly newspaper. Our offices were at Canon House on Haile Sellasie Avenue, a walking distance from where the Embassy of United States was those days. The embassy was the target of the terrorist attack.
Working for a weekly newspaper, Fridays were a light day for me. I was only required to be in office at 11am to chair an editorial planning meeting, assign reporters and break off.
I leisurely walked to office, strolling along Moi Avenue to Haille Sellasie Avenue. I passed just outside the American Embassy and the seven-storey Ufundi House which few minutes later would be flattened by the bomb blast.
Inside office I flipped through the day's newspapers and we sat for the meeting. We hardly had discussed any item when we heard the loud bang, followed by violent shaking that had papers fly off our desks as shattered window panes poured on the ground. A colleague shouted earthquake and we all scampered under our desks and said silent prayers.
When some calm came, we crawled from under our desks and walked down the staircase to find out what was happening.
The pavement was full of broken glass. Vehicles stalled on the road and everybody was running helter-skelter, many profusely bleeding from glass cuts. A heavy cloud of dark smoke enveloped the skyline making it look like it was night during day time. We thought it was a massive fire outbreak and silently walked towards the scene of the catastrophe, cameras and notebooks at hand.
Past the Central Bank building, we met with more injured people running in all directions like headless chicken. In silence and grief we proceeded on, recording everything on paper and film.
The billowing acrid smoke was now too heavy on our nostrils as it blinded our eyes. We could hardly see. We broke into two groups and agreed to be back in office to compare notes after an hour or so.
Back in office, we were like proverbial blind men whose eyesight was momentarily restored, shown a camel and asked to draw what they had seen. Some drew it with a long neck but short legs. Others drew it the other way round. Some only saw a lump but no head.
In our case, some maintained it was a fire outbreak from a burnt passenger bus whose smoldering shell we found outside the Coop-Bank building. Others thought it was a robbery at the bank where robbers could have detonated grenades to gain entry. A few had done their assignment better and convinced us it was indeed a bomb attack targeted at the US embassy. It wasn’t long before we confirmed that from local and international television networks live at the scene.
We divided ourselves into groups. One team would return to the scene, another would visit hospitals, and another would monitor the unfolding story on live broadcasts and receive reports from the field.
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With so many dead, missing or seriously wounded, in the next couple of days everybody was glued on newspaper obituary pages just in case you saw a relative, a friend or at least somebody you knew.
It was in course of perusing obit pages that I came across names of two girls I had come to know not too long before the tragedy. They are - and God rest their souls in eternal peace - Teresia Wairimu and Purity Mwihaki.
Ironically, both were really keen to travel to the United States and live there. Actually, Teresia was in the long queue of visa applicants outside the US embassy when the blast came. The other girl, Mwihaki, worked with an insurance company whose offices were at the ill-fated Ufundi House.
I had met Teresia early in 1998. I was driving along Kikuyu Road when I found her walking alone and offered her a lift.
On the way, Teresia told me she had just left college and looking for a job. I gave her words of encouragement and dropped a few names of places she could try her luck. I also suggested she look for something to keep her busy while waiting for that employment to come.
Since she lived in a farming area within proximity of the capital city, why not try growing veggies and supply greens to supermarkets in town? What about a cybercafé at the shopping centre near her home, a nursery school or day-care centre for working mothers? She liked my ideas but from body language, I could tell she was still fixated on so called white-collar jobs.
Then she asked me as a by-the-way: “Would you know anyone who can assist me get a visa to travel to United States? I hear there are plenty of opportunities there and would love to live there.”
I was sorry I couldn’t help much. I knew several Kenyans living in the United States but wasn’t sure of what help they could be so I couldn’t commit.
As I dropped her in town, we exchanged contacts and agreed to keep in touch. We met twice for coffee then lost touch.
The next thing I saw her picture in the obituary pages. I was so sorry she died while in pursuit of her dream to live in the US.
Like with Teresia, I met Mwihaki months before the bomb blast. Her boss who owned Consolidated Insurance Brokers Mr. P.G. Mureithi was well known to me. Mureithi, now deceased, was later elected MP for Nyeri Town.
In the course of going to see Mr Mureithi, I would chat with Mwihaki who was his secretary. With time, we became friends and would meet for coffee.
It was in one of those evening meetings when she told me of her dream to immigrate to the US where she had acquaintances she claimed were doing so well. I say claimed because I have come to learn that the often so rosy pictures painted about Kenyans living abroad are either exaggerations or outright lies! Personally, I have never had any wish to settle abroad whatever challenges we have in our Motherland.
We left it at that but, like with Teresia, met twice or so for a drink then lost touch. The next thing I saw her in the obituary pages. So sad that, like Teresia, she was killed by a bomb targeted at citizens of a country she so much yearned to live in!
But as I miss those two pretty girls I had come to befriend few months to the bomb blast, I am very proud of two gentlemen I came to know as a result of the tragedy. One is Mr Joash Okinde.
I had always met Okinde, who was an usher at the Nairobi Pentecostal Church (now Citam), on Valley Road. But I never knew where he worked until after the bomb blast.
He was employed as security guard at the US embassy. On the day of the bomb blast, he happened to be the guard on duty at the rear entrance to the basement car park. The terrorists had planned to detonate the bomb at the basement where it would have had maximum impact. Experts say had the bomb exploded from the underground of the building, it would have had more than ten times as devastating consequences!
It is Okinde who denied them access to the basement by refusing to lift the barrier. He paid for it dearly when they hauled a grenade his way and permanently impaired his leg.
The other hero of the day is an Israeli soldier in the search-and-rescue team. He penetrated deep into the rubble and rescued a baby still alive days after the blast. Miracles still happen!
A night before Israel team flew back home, I accidentally bumped unto the Israeli soldier at Ambassadeur Hotel where his team was booked. We got into a conversation over a drink. He was so happy to have saved one life and told me: “In my home country, we live in a permanent state of war. We are a very small population and just one life saved means so much to us!”