It was August 7, 1998. Suicide bombers exploded 700 kilos of TNT in a truck outside of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. The bomb blast ended the lives of 257 people, injured 6,000, and destroyed a fragile peace in a bustling city. At the same time, another explosion rocked the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A little-known terrorist network named al Qaeda organized the attacks, led by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.
Ten years later, the survivors and the victims’ families continue to mourn and to seek justice. Last Thursday, Kenyans from all walks of life gathered at the site of the blast in Nairobi, to remember the dead and to call for greater vigilance. The site has been transformed into the “August 7 Memorial Park” with monuments and gardens and trees. Once called “Ground Zero,” a site of terror and pain, it is now a place of respite, a green corner in a busy city. A granite memorial wall bears the names of the 257 dead, including 12 Americans.
I joined the memorial service last Thursday. In 1998, I was also one of the survivors, an American student learning Kiswahili and international affairs. I rode into Nairobi that day in a matatu minivan, and was just 8 blocks from the embassy when the explosion rocked the city. I recall feeling the blast deep in my body, a vibration so shocking that words cannot express. I watched in horror as a mushroom cloud of dust and smoke and debris rose over the city that I had come to love.
It has taken nearly ten years for me to get over the trauma of that day and the days that followed. The repeated scenes of blood and death and anarchy. The paranoia at any loud noises. The nightmare of uncertainty. The knowledge of so much pain and suffering all around me. The fear of being an American targeted by al Qaeda. The guilt of survival. The anger, then desperation, at my own government’s response – retaliatory attacks in Sudan and Afghanistan.
On September 11, 2001, I was back in the USA, and it was déjà vu. Twin bombings in New York and Washington, DC. Glass, steel, and concrete crumbling into dust. Lives extinguished in a gulf of flames and smoke. The fear and anguish amplified by repeated scenes in the media. The fear of airplanes, of future attacks. The utter sense of insecurity and helplessness. The mantra “Why Us?” resounding in my heart. Anger and desperation at the “War on Terror,” a war without end, without rules, without known enemies.
After 9/11, the U.S. Congress ruled to grant compensation to the survivors and the families of the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Former U.S. ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell says that “in an emotional reaction” the U.S. Congress established “a very difficult precedent.”
In the U.S. today, the Kenyan victims of the 1998 American embassy bombings have been nearly forgotten. The victims’ families and survivors in Nairobi have sought compensation for their losses in the U.S. courts. Phillip Musolino, a Washington attorney, represents hundreds of Kenyans injured, blinded or bereaved by the attacks ten years ago. He is now engaged in a legal battle over some $7 million in frozen assets from al Qaeda sources, and claims that this money should be used to compensate the Kenyans.
However, there has been a double standard for Kenyan victims of al Qaeda. American judges have not been sympathetic to arguments that the U.S. should be held liable for the damages. U.S. government attorneys insist that al Qaeda should be held responsible for the suffering and the losses, and that the U.S. was itself victimized by the attack. To add insult to injury, the surviving perpetrators were extradited to the United States, and were first charged with just 12 counts of murder, for the 12 Americans who were killed. They are now serving life sentences in U.S. prisons.
Current U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Michael Rannenberger insists that the U.S. has already provided more that $42 million to Kenyan victims “to assist children with school fees, to provide medical assistance, to facilitate the resumption of livelihoods, for reconstruction, and for the creation of the Memorial Park.” Kenyans, however, will point out that most of these funds have been used to build a new fortified embassy and to buttress security and anti-terrorism surveillance. They insist that little has been invested in the people who were most affected by the violence.
Ten years later, the fragile peace in Kenya was once again unsettled by a very divisive election. The post-election violence claimed over 1,200 lives and displaced an estimated 350,000 Kenyans from their homes. Eight months later, many are still living in fear of the unknown, or fear of their neighbors and fellow Kenyans. Suspicions and assumptions and accusations abound across ethnic, gender, and class lines. Many still do not know where to call “home.” Terror has returned to Kenya.
And the Kenyan police are still engaged in a manhunt for al Qaeda mastermind Fazul Abdullah. Fazul organized the 1998 attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, as well as the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned coastal resort, the Paradise Hotel in Kikambala. Fazul was nearly apprehended last week in Malindi, another coastal city, where he was detected communicating with al Qaeda associates by cell phone and email. He is believed to be planning yet another terrorist attack in Kenya.
May we all remember how the events in 1998 brought together a divided Kenya in acts of heroism, mercy and solidarity. May we remember those who gave their blood, sweat and tears to save lives, to honor the dead, and to heal the survivors. Perhaps these collective memories may be the inspiration needed to bring Kenyans together across their differences, and to remind Americans of our commitment to justice and equality.
*Catherine Cutcher is a U.S. Fulbright Student in Kenya. She is a Ph.D. Candidate from the Ohio University College of Education.