20 Years After Al Qaeda’s First Big Attack, Kenyans Still Bear Scars

August 9, 2018 Last Updated: August 9, 2018

NAIROBI, Kenya—Just after 10:30 on a sunny August morning in downtown Nairobi, 48-year-old Ali Mwadama was walking toward a bank opposite the U.S. embassy, a cheque in hand.

He was less than 50 meters from the embassy on Aug. 7, 1998, when a truck bomb detonated, transforming the normally bustling business district into a war zone.

It was Osama bin Laden’s announcement to the world that his al Qaeda was a global threat: a coordinated bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania.

The two bombings killed 258 people, the majority in Nairobi. Three years later, al Qaeda would conduct its most notorious attack, flying passenger planes into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing some 3,000 people.

Mwadama does not remember who pulled him out of the rubble, bleeding from a gash in his neck caused by a flying shard of glass. He recalls hearing screams and ambulance sirens.

People in blood-soaked clothing were carried on makeshift stretchers past what was left of the embassy.

He lost two friends that day, his livelihood as a voiceover artist and public speaker, and the cheque he was going to cash, earned for voicing a Coca-Cola ad aired during the 1998 soccer World Cup.

Twenty years later, he struggles to turn his head to the left. A scar runs from the below the grey hair on the back of his head to the bottom of his ear.

Other scars run deeper.

“Wherever I go, wherever I sit, I am so afraid of anything that could attack me,” he said, holding a photograph taken of him after the attack.

In it, he stares blankly at a wall, a bloody bandage covering his 26 stitches, his three children watching with concerned expressions.

Thunderous Bang

Civil servant Julie Ogoye was talking to a colleague in their fourth floor Nairobi office when she heard a strange noise outside.

“I think I only went two steps, then I heard a very loud thunderous bang,” she said. “And what I saw was a silverish white cloud moving up.”

That was the last thing she saw in a long time.

For a few seconds, there was silence. Then came the groans.

Ogoye got up, helped by a colleague, and stumbled in blindness over debris and what she later learned were dead bodies.

“When I lifted my hand and put it on the socket, I noticed it was an empty socket. My eyeball was hanging at the nose area,” she recalled. The shock made her pass out.

Her sight partially returned in her right eye. The left socket was filled with a prosthesis.

Ogoye is not eager to forget.

At the weekend, she visited the former site of the embassy, now the August 7th Memorial Park.

“This park. It was rubble and blood and a stinking place, but they have transformed it into a beautiful place,” she said.

“To me it is symbolic. Bad things can happen, but good things conquer bad things.”

By Cecilie Kallestrup