7 August 1998 is one of those days – and events – where one can be asked where they were when it happened, and more likely than not, the memory won’t be pleasant. Most were going about their day when a breaking news item popped up on their TV screens, announcing the twin bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. For those within a certain radius of the two embassies, deafening blasts and flying debris form their recollection.
Sadly, there are those who cannot share where they were and what they were up to on that fateful day because much as it was an ordinary work day – woke up early, took a shower, dressed up, had breakfast with loved ones and bid them goodbye before heading off to work – it was their last day both at work and in the world – at least for those who made it to work.
These individuals, most of whom worked at the Ufundi Co-operative Society Building in Nairobi, became stories and statistics to the world, but remain departed loved ones to their friends and families who mourn and miss them 25 years later today. Day after day after the twin attacks, newspaper headlines carried numbers and images – so many injured, yet another batch saved from the rubble – with family members and rescued colleagues narrating their last phone conversations, their final moments, and other minute, intimate details which made for good news stories but which families and friends hold onto tightly 25 years later.
In Nairobi, 213 sons, daughters, men, women, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, grandfathers, grandmothers… people… lost their lives, with another 4,000 suffering injuries. In Dar es Salaam, another 11 loved ones died, with another 85 injured. Having targeted the US embassies in the two countries, Kenyan families suffered a greater loss considering the embassy was located within the city center, while Tanzanians escaped a large number of injuries and fatalities since the US embassy was located in a sparsely populated suburb, away from downtown Dar es Salaam. Granted, any life lost is one too many.
And as time does its thing – making events slowly fade into the background especially for the larger public, at least not so much for the families – 7 August 1998 started becoming a distant memory. An attempt at making Kenya and the world not to forget was made with the setting up of the August 7th Memorial Park at the site of the Nairobi bombing, with names of the departed inscribed in plaques. The park, small in size and requiring an entry fee, has for the most part remained that spot next to the Railways Bus Terminus, a place commuters rush past as they make their way home or to work early in the morning or late in the evening.
The main Ufundi Co-operative building – which at the time of the attacks housed the head offices of the Co-operative Bank of Kenya and the Teachers Service Commission among other agencies – often simply referred to us Bomb Blast after the blast, or Bell Bottom due to its architectural design, was brought back to life considering its structural integrity wasn’t compromised to a point of it becoming inhabitable, has since been refurbished and brought back to life, as if it never once stood there stripped naked, heavily bruised and dejected. On Haile Selassie Avenue, the street below where Kenyans riding on buses and walking to work lost life and limb as glass and other debris descended from the skyscraper, things are busy.
Then three years later, 9/11 happened in the United States in September 2001, resulting in 2,996 fatalities and making the world come to a standstill of sorts due to the spectacle and scale of the terrorist attacks, and the subsequent opening of the floodgates with the infamous war on terror. In Kenya, there was the Westgate terror attack on 12 September 2013, resulting in the killing of 71 loved ones with another 200 injured; the Garissa University terror attack on 2 April 2015 which culminated in the killing of 148 loved ones and 78 others suffering injuries; followed by the 14 Riverside Drive terror attack which ended with the killing of 22 loved ones.
7 August 1998 was quickly fading into the background.
Kenya, and the world, was moving on, changing.
Yet it was after 7 August 1998 that life as we knew it changed in a ‘‘there was Kenya/the world as we knew it before 7 August 1998 and there was Kenya/the world as we’ve come to know it after 7 August 1998’’ way, at least for Kenya. Metal detectors became a prominent feature at the front doors of buildings, leaving ID cards at building entrances became a reality, with other forms of searches and scrutinies, including by security dogs, becoming normalized.
The Kenyan state, in responding the only way it seems to know how and with the support of its allies, established the Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU), coupled with the setting up of agencies such as the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) and having special courts and laws to deal with suspected terrorists. These, of course, haven’t been without their fair share of downsides such as profiling of individuals and communities, extrajudicial killings of suspects who may later be exonerated of any wrongdoing, and the deployment of ATPU in politically-motivated operations. These, and others, are stories for another day.
In the mix of these and other actions and reactions which can both be praised and critiqued at great lengths, the tens if not hundreds of families impacted by the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombing on 7 August 1998 seem to have been left to their own devices as they seek some form of reparations from the United States government, which has continued to be a strong supporter of the Kenyan state in their individual and collective fight against terrorism.
Because as much as policy, prevention, deterrence and punishment matters, what matters even more is the reality of everyday life of people, human beings… sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunties, grandchildren, grandfathers, grandmothers, friends, relatives… people… many people… who are left behind and have to face life without the love, support and presence of loved ones who died not having signed up to be at the frontline of political or other wars, but who became victims of battles and ideas beyond their scope and in put.
We are 25 years late in wiping off tears and lessening the pain.
May 7 August 1998 never fade into oblivion.