Reflections on the U.S. Embassy Bombings in Kenya and Tanzania
On the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on two U.S. embassies, American, Kenyan and Tanzanian survivors reflect on that seminal event and its aftermath.
Editor’s Note: In honor and commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Aug. 7, 1998, East Africa embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, we asked American, Kenyan and Tanzanian survivors to reflect on that seminal event and its aftermath, and to share thoughts on carrying on after tragedy.
With guidance from Ambassadors (ret.) Prudence Bushnell and John Lange, we posed a set of questions to as many embassy staff and family member survivors as could be found through their informal networks:
• When the attack occurred, I was (where, when, what happened);
• The Aug. 7 bombings most affected me (my family and colleagues) in the following ways;
• This is what helped as I created a new normal for my life;
• Given what I have learned, I would like to pass on the following advice for those who may become survivors and helpers in the future.
Some chose to fill in those blanks; others chose a different format. What follows is a compilation of the responses. (Light editing and some trimming of text was done as needed.)
Each author’s name is followed by the position he or she held at the time of the bombing.
This FSJ collection is just one part of a collaboration between AFSA, the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and the U.S. Diplomacy Center to collect reflections, photos and artifacts for the 20th anniversary of the East Africa bombings.
ADST will continue to collect reflections, so we encourage those who either were not contacted or did not have a chance to respond, to submit something for the permanent Oral History Collection. Send 500 to 1,000 words in response to the questions above to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (703) 302-6290 for more information.
The USDC continues to collect artifacts for its permanent collection. To donate an item, please email a description to Associate Curator Kathryn Speckart at email@example.com, or call (202) 472-8208.
On Aug. 6, USDC will host an event open to the public marking the anniversary. A panel of Tanzanian, Kenyan and American survivors sharing their stories, discussion and an exhibit will be featured. All attendees will receive a copy of this Journal collection. On Aug. 7, survivors will gather at the memorial marker in Arlington National Cemetery.
Thanks to all those who shared their experiences. We know that for some it is still incredibly painful to do so, while for others it is cathartic, and for many it lies somewhere in between.
The Practice of Leadership at Every Level
U.S. Ambassador to Kenya
Commercial Officer Riz Khaliq and a nurse from the emergency medical unit at the embassy take injured U.S. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell to safety following the bombing of Embassy Nairobi.
I was into my second year as U.S. ambassador to Kenya. With two colleagues from the Commerce Department, I was meeting with the Kenyan minister of commerce to discuss the visit of an American VIP trade delegation. We were on the top floor of a high-rise building on the other side of the parking lot from the embassy. The sound of an explosion attracted many to the window; I was among the last to stand up.
A huge bang with the weight of a freight train bore through the room, throwing me back. The building swayed; I thought I was going to die. I blacked out for a moment, came to and descended the endless flights of stairs with a colleague. Only when we exited the building did I see what had happened to the embassy. I realized in an instant that no one was going to take care of me, and I had better get to work.
After leaving my injured colleagues in the care of medical help, I went to the Crisis Control Room that had been quickly set up at the USAID building. We were a large mission with competent, experienced people throughout the ranks. Colleagues had already set up communications with Washington. I saw the practice of leadership at every level of our wounded organization and community; it got us through the next 10 months, when I departed post.
Our building, our organization, our community and our neighborhood were blown up. As ambassador, I was responsible for security; and while I had pushed and pushed to get Washington’s attention to our vulnerabilities, I remain keenly aware that I failed. Hours after the attack, as my attention was pulled in multiple directions, I remembered the advice of a mentor: “Take care of your people, and the rest will take care of itself.”
I did so as well as I could. I discovered a depth of sadness and breadth of anger I did not know I had. I also learned I could not take away anyone else’s pain, trauma, anger or sadness, but I could accompany them. I could also promote an environment in which leadership, healing and achievement were possible.
Every individual in our community responded differently. The diversity of reactions created a pace that helped us both to remember and to move forward. It also caused tension between the people who felt we were moving too fast or commemorating too much.
Creating a New Normal
These are the things that helped me in the aftermath: My husband Richard Buckley and Office Manager Linda Howard were with me from the start. Not only did they help me to cope in the immediate aftermath, but they enabled me to face new and challenging FS assignments for the next six years.
Community helped. The kindness and forgiveness of families who lost loved ones helped. The trust, competence and teamwork people demonstrated helped us literally move on from the rubble. The support of family and friends, even if far away, provided a bridge to what “normal” looked like.
Work and time helped. I had meaningful work to accomplish that built on the leadership experience from Nairobi. Better understanding and talking about what happened gave meaning, while the passage of time gave comfort.
Healthy habits for body, mind and soul helped. These included gardening, walking, knitting, reading and cultivating friendships.
Therapy helped. It was not until I retired seven years after the bombing that I tended to my symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, using somatic therapy (EMDR), which I found helpful.
What I Learned
I would like to pass on the following advice for those who may become survivors and helpers in the future.
• Get involved in the community and help to grow teams that learn how to do things together. This will be essential in catastrophes and highly satisfying otherwise.
• Be kind to yourself, and be kind to one another.
• Take care of your people—and take care of yourself, too.
• Allow spouses, family and friends to take care of you.
• Seek professional help to stay resilient.
• To help after a crisis, be clear about your mission and adapt to reality.
• Build a bridge between “we” and “they” to create the trust that will make recovery easier.
• Don’t expect this to end any time soon. Catastrophes breed crises, and some go on for years.
• Find meaning in the event—the “treasures among the ashes.”
• Do not depend on the media or our political leaders to keep the story alive or create change; both have short memories.
• Remember, it will get better.
The Very Worst Moment in My Life
Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations Environment Program
At approximately 10:15 a.m. on Aug. 7, 1998, I saw my wife, Prabhi Kavaler, for the very last time.
I told her that prior to meeting her for lunch (she worked in the embassy as an assistant general services officer), I would go to the Community Liaison Office in the front of the chancery to see if they knew when the school bus would come the following Monday to pick up our two young daughters for their first day of school at our new post. Prior to going to the CLO, I stopped into my office to save a cable that I was drafting.
On arriving at the CLO, I heard a loud sound, followed some 10 seconds later by an even louder noise. The ceiling started to collapse on us, and the chancery was enveloped in darkness. Through clouds of dust, dangling wires and debris, I searched for Prabhi where I thought her office was once located.
I could not find Prabhi, and she did not emerge from the embassy. I finally got a ride to our temporary quarters, where I told my two daughters, 10-year-old Tara and 5-year-old Maya, that in all likelihood their mother had been killed in an explosion at the embassy. That remains the very worst moment in my 69 years.
Having packed our bags, my longstanding housekeeper, the girls and I went to the home of our very good friends, Steve and Judy Nolan. Sometime during our stay, Ambassador Bushnell visited to express her condolences to me. Shortly after receiving the formal notification of Prabhi’s death, my daughters, housekeeper and I were driven from the Nolans’ residence to Jomo Kenyatta Airport, where we boarded a flight that was the first leg of our journey back to the United States.
Take Care of Your Family and Your People
Regional Security Officer
On the morning of Aug. 7, I was sitting in one of my first Country Team meetings, having arrived at post in mid-July to assume the duties of the regional security officer. The meeting was being held on the fourth floor of the chancery in the ambassador’s office. The acting deputy chief of mission was presiding, as the ambassador was out of the building for a meeting.
We were discussing the security briefings that my staff provided to incoming employees—information on Nairobi’s critical crime threat could be disconcerting to new arrivals, and the question was whether we could tone it down. A few minutes into this conversation, the windows on the back wall of the office blew in, throwing members of the country team from their chairs to the floor and showering us with debris.
In the wake of the explosion came an eerie silence, lasting several seconds. I was struggling to crawl over some of my colleagues and head downstairs to Post One to find out our status, when I heard the screaming of people in pain and horror.
As I found my way down the darkened stairwell, I realized two things: We had been seriously damaged by an apparent attack, and this wasn’t going to help me lighten up my briefings. Panicked employees, some whole, many injured, poured into the stairwell. I assisted several injured employees down the stairwell to what had been the lobby and turned them over to other employees.
At our heavily damaged Post One I met with the Marine Security Guard detachment commander to conduct a damage assessment, establish a secure perimeter, search for survivors, evacuate and triage the wounded and begin to address the hundreds of other details that managing a mass casualty event requires. The gunny and I conducted a quick survey of the damage and began to develop a perimeter security plan. We were trying to manage chaos.
Once our initial survey was completed, we held an impromptu Country Team meeting in front of the ravaged building and delineated responsibilities. We knew we had lost people, some of them close to us; but our priority at that point was to try to ensure we didn’t lose any more, either through another attack or an accident during our rescue efforts inside the building. We spent the next 40 hours trying to make that happen.
People deal with stress differently. Not everyone can deal with a tragedy of this magnitude and continue to operate effectively. —Paul Peterson
I’ve realized, with perspective, that the courageous deeds and acts of kindness and compassion I witnessed far outweigh the pain and loss we had to address. I take immense pride when I look back at the many obstacles we addressed and overcame.
I trained for most of my life as a first responder, prepared to address crisis situations and other emergencies. Over more than 20 years I had acquired considerable experience addressing stressful situations, but had never given much thought to how my job affected my family. Nairobi taught me that my family paid a price for my choice of profession. Due to a bombingrelated failure in communication, it was several hours before many family members, mine included, were aware of whether we were victims or survivors, injured or whole.
In the hours waiting for news, families gathered together, shared what little information was available and hoped for the best. I later learned that, but for a last-minute change in plans, my wife would have been in an area of the chancery in which there were no survivors after the blast. My colleagues could share comparable stories.
As I created a new normal for my life, I did my best to take the positive aspects of my Nairobi experience and use them to become a better husband, father and professional. I still live with some of the negative images, but I’ve managed to maintain perspective. I’ve dedicated myself to the principle that there’s nothing more important than taking care of your family and your people, and I do my best to live up to that.
The examples of leadership in crisis by Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, Deputy Chief of Mission Michael Marine and the Country Team demonstrated the highest standards of the Foreign Service and the other U.S. government agencies that were present. The political lesson: U.S. government and Foreign Service National employees deserve the highest levels of protection when representing the United States overseas.
People deal with stress differently. Not everyone can deal with a tragedy of this magnitude and continue to operate effectively. Early screening of employees by professional medical and psychiatric professionals should take place in the wake of any major security incident or other disaster, to determine how people are coping and if a change in environment would be beneficial.
Prior to 1998, the Department of State had failed to effectively address the myriad security issues that had been brought to their attention. However, as a direct result of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings, it developed and enacted new procedures, and many new embassies and consulates have been built to stricter security standards, saving lives. We must continue to fight complacency.
Navy Seabees remove rubble from one of the many destroyed offices in the embassy building. Following the blasts, more than 40 Seabees were deployed to Kenya and Tanzania to assist with the investigations and cleanup operations.
Courtesy of Worley and Joyce Reed
Helping Others Gives Purpose
Joyce Ann Reed
Administrative Assistant for Communications
I was in the Communications Center hallway on the top floor, escorting a member of the Kenyan char force who was doing routine cleaning. I heard a loud crash on the roof, and then there was total darkness. I was having trouble breathing. I saw debris all over my clothes and in my hair when the emergency lights came on.
Once the door to the ambassador’s office was unlocked, I took the Kenyan employee’s hand and led her through it, then out of the bombed building to safety. I immediately turned our car into an ambulance, loading bleeding Americans and Kenyans to be taken to the hospital. I also helped with the triage that was being organized by our doctor, Gretchen McCoy. In the afternoon, I went to the USAID building to help with the reorganization of the American embassy.
The effect the bombing has had on me in the long term is that I do not feel safe anymore, no matter where I go. I experience painful feelings when I have flashbacks of the bombing. These flashbacks can be triggered by certain sounds, smells or just seeing or hearing about other similar events. The bombing damaged my husband’s life as well, since he was one of my co-workers at the embassy. Our children’s lives were forever changed.
I take medication given to me by my psychiatrist, whom I see monthly for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. I continue to keep in touch with other survivors through our nonprofit charity, The American Society for the Support of Injured Survivors of Terrorism. This is my way of saluting the courage of survivors; helping others affected by terrorism gives me purpose.
Staffing the Hotline
USAID/Kenya Senior Agricultural Development Adviser and Senior Assistant Team Leader (FSN)
Navy Seabees shoring up damage to the underground parking area at the embassy in Nairobi.
Courtesy of Worley and Joyce Reed
I worked for USAID/Kenya from 1982 to 2006. I managed several agricultural programs, as well as the Women in Development portfolio, and was also an election observer for the 1987 election.
When the attack occurred, I was at home. That evening, USAID Deputy Director Lee Ann Ross called to ask if I would be willing to help set up a hotline center that concerned Kenyan families could call to ascertain the status of their loved ones—like a crisis hotline in the United States. The major difference in this case was that none of us had any idea how to run such a center, let alone how to answer the frantic questions that were coming our way. But I reported to work immediately and worked two long weeks assisting the bereaved families.
It is almost impossible to express how difficult this job was. Distraught families were calling to find out if their loved ones were alive or dead. I did not know how to answer. The only rule we were given was not to tell anyone of a death over the phone. We were told to ask each family to come to the USAID building, where we would tell them in person. Our hotline team worked under the most extraordinary circumstances.
I remember very clearly one of the difficult cases with which I dealt. A husband had dropped off his wife for work in the morning and thought nothing was amiss, even after he heard about the bombing. When he arrived home later that day and his wife was not there, he decided to check the local hospitals. When he didn’t find her in any of the hospitals, he still assumed that she was fine and that she would show up sooner or later. It did not occur to him to check the mortuary.
The following day, the husband and some of his relatives came by the USAID building to check the status of our information. I took his call and went downstairs to meet the family. It was I who broke the news that his wife had died. The husband collapsed on the spot.
I am still haunted by the sights I saw, the images on the television and the job I did. I still have not gone to the former embassy site where the names of my former colleagues are listed. I have tried to avoid anything specifically related to the bombing. Seeing the names of some of the people who were killed would bring back the memory.
Kenya had had security issues, such as crimes, carjackings and rapes—but not bombings. The entire country was shocked and did not have an emergency preparedness program prior to the bombings. Kenya has never been the same since.
On a personal level, I do not watch media coverage of bombings. I am still too traumatized to recall the events of Aug. 7, 1998. My family noticed increased levels of stress, fear and anger. I suffer from sleep deprivation at times.
Holding together as one team—Americans and Kenyans— under the excellent leadership of the most caring and skilled Ambassador Prudence Bushnell is what created a new normal for me. Working with wonderful and appreciative supervisors like Lee Ann Rose and Meg Brown normalized my life. I have maintained close relationships with them, and I feel they are a part of me, for we shared a collective trauma.
While many of the other jobs relating to the immediate aftermath of the bombing were temporary, the work of the hotline team went on for several years; and in some cases, it still goes on today. The families of the bereaved looked to us Kenyan staff who manned the hotlines for moral assistance and support well after the bombing. I consider it one of the hardest and most gutwrenching jobs any of us did. Building an organizational family culture is key for survivors and helpers.
Living with Unanswered Questions
Security Cooperation Officer in the Kenya U.S Liaison Office
My story is likely similar to those of my colleagues. Small, seemingly insignificant choices, statements and actions ultimately decided who lived and who died.
As an Air Force officer, I was assigned to the Kenya U.S. Liaison Office led by Colonel Ron Roughead. At the instant the bomb detonated—10:39 a.m.—I was in the ambassador’s office for a core Country Team meeting. The ambassador’s office was located on the top floor, one floor up and on the opposite side of the building from the KUSLO office. All those in my office were killed: Jean Dalizu, Sherry Olds and Arlene Kirk, along with Ken Hobson, who was in the adjoining office.
Normally, as the KUSLO chief, Ron would attend the 10 a.m. weekly core Country Team meeting. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with him that morning. Ron had a 10:30 meeting with the Kenyan military engineers in Thika (about a 45-minute drive north of the embassy) and was reconsidering going because he would miss Country Team. I said to him “Go to Thika; you’ve been trying to get this meeting for a while. I’ll take Country Team.” Ron agreed that I should pinch-hit.
I was still relatively junior, having only pinned on my major’s bars a week before. Normally, if Ron couldn’t go to a meeting, his deputy would fill in. However, the deputy position was gapped, with the new officer arriving in September. My fellow major, Joe Wiley, was in the United States. So, the fact that I was put in the position of attending a senior embassy meeting as a relatively junior guy was the result of multiple twists.
Survivor’s guilt, PTSD or just living with unanswered questions—all of us who remain struggle with some or all of these. —Neal Kringel
I was working at my desk that morning, and at about 9:55 Jean Dalizu tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Neal, you’d better head upstairs. The meeting starts in five minutes.” Those were the last words Jean spoke to me. Absent her reminder— would I have forgotten? Of course, I’ll never know.
I remember enduring the seemingly unending meeting, which was ultimately interrupted by several pops (the gun shots and grenades) and then by the glass-imploding detonation of the bomb. We all immediately jumped to evacuate the building, but I remember being drawn to the other side of the top floor—in retrospect, maybe by a divine hand.
There I was able to pull four victims out from under piles of rubble; three survived. I then made my way to the KUSLO office, where I found my colleagues—all deceased. Arlene Kirk, on her first day back from leave, was lying by the window. Those of us who remember the embassy know there was frequently some type of commotion at the corner of Moi and Selassie. And normally it was Arlene and I who would run to the window to see what was going on. I’m sure she heard the “pops” and went to look. But I wasn’t there to check things out with her that day.
Survivor’s guilt, PTSD or just living with unanswered questions— all of us who remain struggle with some or all of these. Why her and not me? Why them and not us? Why that day and not another? Twenty years later, I’ve stopped asking and simply accepted that I’m here and will make the most of the opportunity I’ve been given and remember and honor those who were taken from us. That’s all we can do.
Patrick Mutuku Maweu
Appliance Technician (FSN)
At the time of the bombings, I was working in facilities maintenance as an appliance technician at the embassy in Nairobi, where I still work today. I reached the embassy building just about three minutes before the blast. From a distance of about 400 meters, I heard a big blast, like thunder, and saw window panes falling from buildings.
We helped rescue those trapped inside the building. My family never knew my whereabouts until the following morning. I found my family—wife, children, mum, dad, sisters and brothers— terrified and in shock. We had some counseling sessions in the embassy for the survivors.
My advice would be this: before rescuing others, make sure your life is not at risk. I arrived at the scene while the building was covered by smoke, dust and debris and, in shock and disbelief, never had a second thought that another blast could have gone off while we were engaged in rescuing.
A Long and Uncertain Road to Recovery
Carmella A. Marine
Spouse of the Deputy Chief of Mission
Embassy Nairobi was our ninth overseas posting, but our first in Africa. We were excited to go to Kenya, which we had heard was one of the most beautiful places on earth. Our two girls would be attending a good international school, and my husband, Michael, would be deputy chief of mission, his dream job. Our new home was lovely and large, surrounded by five acres of flowering trees and gorgeous flowers. The climate was ideal, and the air was crisp and clean. It seemed like paradise!
After a year, we went home on leave. Less than a week later, we were awakened by a 4 a.m. phone call from a friend who exclaimed, “Turn on the television; your embassy has been bombed!” We were stunned to see Ambassador Bushnell, wounded, walking with a colleague’s support, her hair all white with dust. The embassy building looked badly damaged, although the front facade seemed relatively intact. The details were sketchy, but Michael called the State Department and made arrangements to return to Nairobi as quickly as possible.
Initially, I decided to stay in the United States with my daughters, but after a few weeks, Ambassador Bushnell called and asked if I would come back to help with the healing process. My daughters were settled in boarding school, so I agreed, with some trepidation, to return.
The situation there was still chaotic. No one felt safe. A constant stream of visitors from Washington wanted to help, but often added to the stress. A reinforced platoon of Marines was providing security—featuring barbed wire and machine guns— for the working staff and visitors at the temporary embassy (in the USAID building). The rest of us stayed in our houses, not able to do much but worry. The final numbers of dead (213) and wounded (more than 5,000) were staggering.
Why had this happened? We later found out about a Saudi named bin Laden and a group called al-Qaida, but we didn’t understand any of this at the time. Many Kenyans blamed the Americans for the death and destruction that had rained down on their capital city. In their view, had the Americans not been in Nairobi, the bombing would not have happened.
We held a series of dinners at our house for all those who wanted to come together to share experiences and feelings. Some people were unwilling to go out at night, but nearly 100 did come. It was a way to reconnect and to cope with our fears. We all wanted to get back to normal, but now there was a new normal: just trying to get through the day. I think many people had “survivor’s guilt”—I know I did. What can you possibly say to a family that has lost a loved one? We carried on the best we could.
About a year after the bombing, on leave to see our daughters, we decided to visit a Kenyan security guard, Joash Okindo, who was still in recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. On the day of the bombing, Joash had been on duty in the rear of the embassy building, at the entrance to the basement parking garage. His bravery and quick thinking saved hundreds that day.
The terrorists had driven their bomb-laden truck up to the entrance gate and demanded that Joash open it. Unarmed, Joash calmly told them that he needed to “get the key.” Then, as they argued amongst themselves and pulled out weapons, he sprinted to a nearby gap between the building and a large generator shed. The terrorists set off flash-bang grenades, which sadly attracted dozens of staff to the windows, where they died when the terrorists detonated a massive explosion.
Miraculously, despite being right next to ground zero, Joash survived. He suffered two shattered legs, a concussion and numerous other injuries. Like many others, he was evacuated to Germany and then to Walter Reed, where he endured a long, painful recovery.
When we saw him, we were awed by his quiet grace. A handsome man, he stood with difficulty, proud and with a kind smile. I was so overcome that I started to cry and found myself being comforted by a person who had suffered so much. What a brave soul! Who knows how many other victims there would have been if he had agreed to open that gate?
Even a year after the bombing, Joash still had a long and uncertain road to a full recovery, but he was clearly determined. A wonderful footnote: Joash ultimately returned to Nairobi, where he accepted a new job at the embassy.
A Day Can End before It Starts
Administrative Assistant, USAID/Kenya (FSN)
I was at work in the USAID building in Parklands, waiting for my office director to clear on a Situation Report from the Disaster Assistance Response Team (working on the Burundi disaster). We heard the first blast. The second blast shook our building, and we could see papers and smoke filling the skyline in the downtown area.
There were sirens and the announcements on the PA system. We were asked to leave immediately. My brothers were happy to see me alive; we hugged and cried and called our relatives to check on them. I returned the next day to volunteer at the switchboard or the family assistance desk—the numbers and names of our fallen colleagues were flowing in. Because the morgues were full, the USAID warehouse served as an improvised a body storage facility, the bodies packed up with giant ice blocks.
I didn’t know the effect the bombing had on me until later, when I attended funerals and burial ceremonies of my colleagues. At one of these, I was nominated to read the condolence message from the ambassador—a tall order! I was the youngest in the group at this ceremony at Kangundo, in Machakos County. I greeted people in the local language and told them I was there to represent the U.S. embassy and had a letter from the ambassador. I read in English, and one of my colleagues helped me translate to the local language. Later, on my way home, I broke down and cried. I remembered the faces of the widow and the kids, who were looking at us like we would answer all their unspoken questions. It could have been me in that casket. I imagined how my family would have been affected. I cried for all my colleagues who died and for their loved ones.
I still remember the sight of the collapsed embassy and the screams and the sirens. To this day I panic during drills and when I hear ambulance sirens—I don’t like noise, and I once wet my clothes during a drill in Kabul, Afghanistan. I am more aware of my surroundings and always look for exits wherever I am.
I learned that the U.S. embassy—my employer—is committed to safety and to taking care of us; there are drills and trainings on safety, testing of the PA systems, and gas masks and all safety measures are in place. And I share this information with my family and friends: they should “duck and cover” and not run to the windows when they hear gun shots or blasts; they should keep a change of clothes and food and water in the cars and in the offices; and they should keep their travel documents and some money handy.
I have learned that a day can end before it starts. The bomb exploded at 10:30 a.m.; people were still planning for the rest of the day. They had dropped their kids at school and spouses at work; they had pending issues and unfinished business—but they didn’t have time for closure. I live each day as if it were my last.
I learned to listen more and talk less; and to be there for others, especially during trying times. I have also learned to slow down, look around and savor the moment. I can be replaced in the office, but not in my family. I spend more time with my daughter and my parents—we talk about anything and everything—death, property, education, sex, everything!
Every day is a new opportunity.
A makeshift memorial was erected on the grounds of the former U.S. embassy in Nairobi in the days following the August 7 blasts. The text reads: “Together we mourn and sympathise with our fellow humans.”
Courtesy of Worley and Joyce Reed
Carry Lessons Forward
USAID/Kenya Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance
When the attack occurred, I was with my wife and two kids in Portland, Oregon, ready to return to Nairobi. We were at Andrews Air Force base three days after the bombings, when the bodies were returned and President Bill Clinton spoke. We left that evening, Aug. 10, for Nairobi.
My job was to work with my Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance colleagues on response efforts, and for the next eight months I was the head of the recovery unit.
I struggled with the question of why men would kill kids, street vendors and bank clerks to try to get at a few Americans. There is no answer to the question, but asking it over and over left me with a nagging sense of insecurity.
Among my family members, our son took it the hardest—the parent of a friend was among the dead. He developed depression, and three years after the bombing, we left Nairobi at the urging of the State Department psychologist. Our son still suffers from depression.
Most colleagues not in Nairobi quickly moved on from what happened. In one sense, that was all they could do. I grew closer to colleagues who stayed in Nairobi, as they were the ones who could best understand the impact that such an event has on individuals and communities.
I took time to think through the “whys” of such an attack. Later, as I went to work in other critical-threat posts, I lived my life with greater understanding of the threats and impacts of terror. I became an advocate within USAID for preparing to deal with staff issues attendant to terror attacks and living under constant security threats. Some did not want to hear my thoughts, but advocating for future victims made me feel as though I was ensuring that my Nairobi colleagues who were killed or injured were not forgotten.
It is important to stay connected to those who went through such an event with you because of a shared understanding, which makes it easier to talk about what happened. I still carry inside me considerable anger at the State Department for their dismissive and slow response to mental health issues, but talking about that tension helps lessen it.
My advice to others is to not hide from the impact of an event. It is important to see a counselor. Listen carefully to your kids and spouse to assess the impact of the event on them, and then figure out what changes in yourself or your circumstances are important. If you remain in the Foreign Service, particularly if you advance to a senior leadership position, you must carry forward the lessons concerning staff care.
Processing, Helping and Healing
Joanne Grady Huskey
FS Family Member
When the bomb went off, I was in the basement of the embassy at the doctor’s office with my two children, Caroline (5) and Christopher (8), waiting to undergo their school physicals. I had unwittingly parked my car immediately next to the truck in the parking lot, where the two men who set off the bomb had watched us walk into the building. My husband, Jim, was on the fourth floor in a meeting in the ambassador’s office.
One minute after we arrived in the doctor’s office, there was a deafening blast that blew us all to the ground. As I regained consciousness from the sudden tremendous jolt, I found myself on the floor, dazed and confused. I realized that my children were somewhere in that dark room in the rubble on the floor. They called out for me and asked, “Is this an atomic bomb?” “No,” I said, “but it is a bomb, and we are going to get out of here.”
I searched for them in the dark and gathered them to me. Clinging to each other, we crawled on the floor over cut glass and debris, groping in the dark through wires hanging from the ceiling, climbing over furniture completely in disarray as we searched for a way out.
Following the mental map I had of the hall layout, I pulled my children along the dark corridors. Still alone, we finally saw a light at the end of the long hallway. We followed the light and climbed through a hole in the wall. Entering the pitch-black garage, we ran up the ramp leading out the rear of the embassy and hit a 100-foot wall of fire, precisely where I had parked our car!
The buildings behind us had collapsed. It was chaos. I saw one Kenyan man covered in blood, without clothes, and others running around with utter fear in their eyes. We ran around the perimeter of the embassy, and my kids slipped through the iron gate into the arms of their shocked and panicked father, who had frantically run out of the building, sliding down four flights of stairs, scared to death that we were all hurt or worse.
FSO Kevin Richardson and my husband pulled apart the iron posts of the barrier with their bare hands, letting me out of the perimeter. Colleagues in front of the embassy exchanged rumors that all the U.S. embassies in Africa had been blown up. We weren’t sure if the perpetrators were still there or not.
Gathering our family together, we ran away from the burning embassy as throngs of Kenyans ran toward it. My husband spotted a car with embassy plates across the median. We jumped over, and he threw us into the van, telling the driver to get us home. Saying goodbye to their father, our children cried for the first time when he went back to the embassy to help victims get out. We zoomed through the chaotic streets of Nairobi, driving on the sidewalk until we could go no further. We jumped out of the car and ran the rest of the way home, covered in white soot, our faces blackened by bomb debris. People stared, shocked to see us.
After the bombing, we pulled together as a family and became even closer than we already were. The preciousness of our lives was ever present in our minds.
Although offered the option of leaving Nairobi, we opted to stay and help Kenyan victims. As president of the American Women’s Association, I got involved in organizing a relief fund for Kenyans injured in the attack. I met Kenyans who had been blinded, deafened or paralyzed by the bomb. This had a profound effect on me; working with them helped me to heal my own wounds. We were able to fund the rehabilitation of many victims.
This event changed me forever, in that I became an active advocate for citizen diplomacy. The perpetrators of the bomb hated Americans without knowing anything about us; and we, in turn, knew close to nothing about them or why they would do this to us. From that moment on, my life’s purpose has been to promote understanding between people of differing backgrounds.
It helps to stay close to those who understand or even know firsthand what you’ve been through. Don’t stay away from someone who has suffered a trauma. Be there for them, even if you don’t know what to say or do. Your presence alone helps so much.
Being able to actively respond to the trauma was healing for me. Telling my story, setting up a relief fund and refocusing my career all helped me feel less victimized, and gave me a way to make sense of the bombing and of terrorism in general. It is important to find your own way to process trauma and give yourself hope for the future.
Hold Together as a United Family
USAID/Kenya Administrative Assistant (FSN)
On Aug. 7, 1998, I was in Parklands, the USAID offices, on duty. I was working for the USAID Population and Health Office as I had done for 10 years. This was a Friday and, as usual, a short day. Schools were closing for their August holidays, so I was very excited to go home early to be with my children.
At about 10:30 a.m. I saw a lot of smoke and flying objects moving skyward. The black smoke increased over time, and I became curious, wanting to know where it was coming from. The first person who came to mind was my dear friend, colleague and sister, the late Cecilia Agnes Mamboleo, who was working in the Human Resources Office. To my surprise, the phone could not go through as usual, so I dialed the number at the switchboard and asked for extension 248.
To date, I have never forgotten these three digits. I had spoken to Cecilia many times each day. She had informed me the previous day that she was busy working on her handover notes, because her children were finishing school, and she would take two weeks to be with them. I came to learn that Cecilia died on the spot at the time of the bombing.
Immediately after the bombing, we were called to provide help in identifying the bodies of our colleagues who were in different morgues. I found my dear friend at Lee Funeral Home. Oohhh, no! When they began opening the drawers, I was still in denial and believed that my friend was still alive; but as they went on opening the drawers, I saw her feet and that she was wearing her favorite African trouser outfit.
That’s when it sank in that she was actually gone for good. We had been neighbors, and our children went to the same school (Consolata School), so her family members were waiting eagerly in my house to hear the good news that we had found Cecilia in one of the hospitals, alive and being treated.
The date, Aug. 7, 1998, is still fresh in my mind 20 years on. I never knew how vulnerable I could be until after the bombing. My family members, who were young then, witnessed our close family friend, Cecilia Agnes Mamboleo, die; and they saw how it affected her family. It took me 15 years to go back to the bomb site at Haile Selassie Avenue. It is a place I pass by daily; yet I still never want to accept that the U.S. embassy is no more.
I realize I lived in denial for a long time, but eventually I allowed myself to find some healing by taking a walk at the site. I meditated and read the names of the colleagues who had worked in the embassy. I visited the museum and watched the bombing video, which unlocked memories that will live with me forever. I keep praying, and anytime I remember the departed souls, Cecilia’s name pops up first. Rest in peace, my dearest sister; life will never be the same again. I pray for Elvis, Sally, Teddy and Kevin, that they hold as one family and know that their mum’s spirit is still in their hearts.
Talking about it from time to time with my colleagues who survived has helped me bounce back, and this has become therapeutic. I appreciate the drills that are being conducted at my workplace, and I take them seriously.
My advice is that we hold together as one united family, and pray for each other and for God’s strength. We have tried to form a support group for the survivors because, though it has been 20 years, it’s still fresh in our minds.
Handprints on the Wall
Regional Nutrition and Food Security Adviser, USAID
During a whirlwind visit to Africa then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited the destroyed U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Here, on Aug. 18, 1998, she lays flowers at the entrance to Embassy Nairobi.
Courtesy of Worley and Joyce Reed
I was in the Regional Economic Development Services Office Towers in Parklands when the bomb exploded less than two miles away. The shock wave hit our building, and for a moment we thought an earthquake had hit. As we went to the windows, a mushroom cloud appeared over downtown Nairobi.
We watched for a few minutes, and then a call came over the loudspeaker for anyone with medical experience to report downstairs. Just as that call came, many bits of burning and charred paper started floating out of the sky around the building.
Being a former paramedic with search and rescue experience, I headed downstairs. Four or five of us piled into a car and headed downtown. The streets were already closed by police, but we managed to get through and made it to the embassy. It looked relatively intact from the road, but a big horizontal crack running along the foundation, perhaps a foot or two above the ground, spoke to the idea that perhaps the entire building had been lifted off the ground. All of the windows on the back side were blown out.
The building next door, which had once been a sewing school, had been reduced to a pile of bricks. The bank on the opposite side of the parking lot seemed like it had acted as a chimney, directing the blast upward. While it was still standing, many of the windows had been blown out.
We went to the front of the building where people were congregating, getting into cars and vans to go to the hospital. I found one of the regional security officers, introduced myself, and we began to put together the first of two search-and-rescue teams. As we entered the building, it was clear that Post One had been devastated. Broken glass and rubble was everywhere.
We headed toward the back of the ground floor to find that the walls had been ripped away, and the entire back was open to the parking lot. A Marine stood watching as Red Cross volunteers entered the building. We moved them out again fairly quickly, as this was still the embassy and theoretically a controlled space. Controlling the chaos seemed like a good first step.
As we moved upstairs to look for survivors, it was clear what had happened: the blast had brought down the interior walls on the side nearest to the parking lot and had blown in all the windows. Much of the floor was covered with cinder block-sized chunks of concrete, perhaps two feet in depth—deep enough to hide bodies.
As we got to the ambassador’s suite, I remember the destruction not being quite as bad, but debris still lined the hallways. A vivid memory for me is a series of maybe 10 bloody handprints on the wall in the hallway leading to the stairs. Someone had walked down the hallway, steadying themselves against the wall and leaving those handprints as they escaped the building.
We cleared the floors room by room, but below the top floor, the job got slower and tougher. Looking for survivors, to my recollection, we found only one person who was still alive and hadn’t already gotten out.
The hard work then began as we sought to shift rubble looking for people who might be trapped or hidden. Think of the child’s game made up of a set of squares that you slide around trying to make a picture. We would clear one area, maybe 4 feet by 4 feet. Next, we moved the rubble in the next 4 x 4 square into the empty one, and so on and so on, methodically clearing room after room. It was backbreaking work. Each chunk of concrete weighed about 40 pounds and we found very few bodies. This went on for two days until the Israelis eventually showed up with dogs that took over for us.
We tried to help with the sewing school, too. But it was difficult. The building was so devastated that there was little we could do.
I went home after that and slept for a couple of days.
The Sheer Extent of the Horror
Senior Financial Management Officer
Finished with a few unexpected meetings in Paris, I was in my hotel room packing to return to London to collect my son, Forbes, at his grandmother’s house and fly on to my new assignment in Nairobi. A Parisian friend called: “Quick, turn on the television. But first—they said no American was killed in Dar es Salaam.” My wife Lizzie was in Dar. Huh?
Embassy blown up in Nairobi. Embassy blown up in Tanzania. What?! Catch the train? I was by then so late there wasn’t anything to do but run to catch the train. As I exited at Waterloo, I saw a picture of my good friend and soon-to-be boss, Steve Nolan, already on the cover of a London tabloid…he had blood on his clothes but was alive.
I decided to leave my son with my mum and rushed to catch my Nairobi flight.
I arrived in Nairobi early Saturday morning not really knowing what had happened in Dar or Nairobi, except that it was bad, and my wife was—probably—alive. The usual embassy driver and expediter weren’t there to meet me, so I took a taxi. I can’t remember why, but I went to the USAID building. I clearly remember walking with my suitcase into the second floor, where I was met by a whiteboard on an easel. The whiteboard was filled with rows of names: On the left were the “missing,” with names crossed out apparently as they reported in. On the right was a list of the deceased. There were seven friends of mine on the wrong side of the list. My deputy’s name was there, the young mother of three small kids. I can’t conjure up a word for my reaction.
That day was a blur. I learned that of my 18 staff, half were either dead or seriously injured. When Steve saw me at about 10 p.m. and asked where I was staying, I realized I had no idea. He took me home with him; I stayed for about three weeks.
I couldn’t call Dar, and Dar couldn’t call Nairobi. Calls could get through to the United States, so a friend relayed messages between Lizzie and me. Over the coming weeks, what started as “a few scratches” on my wife’s face turned into a few cuts turned into some wounds turned into a loss of her nose and her eyesight—and gangrene. They finally convinced my wife—she of unimaginable stubbornness and dedication to her friends and country—to be medevaced to Nairobi.
Over the course of the next few weeks and months, we all worked seven-day weeks, about 18 hours a day. All my hair turned gray; my weight dropped to 122 pounds. A few days after the bombing, I took my deceased deputy’s husband, mother and three small children to the airport to fly home to the United States. We were in the departure lounge when her youngest, a 3-year-old cutie, looked up at me and asked, “Where is Mummy? Isn’t she coming with us?”
A woman I didn’t know came to my office one day—picture an 18 feet by 18 feet room shared by 12 accountants and a group of Marines—and asked to pay her phone bill. I explained that the cashier had been killed and all our records were gone, but I could see that something was seriously wrong here: the woman was bent on paying her bill. I flipped through some papers and made up a number, and she wrote me out a check. I later learned that she had lost her husband and son in the bombing, and was insisting on taking care of the usual details of departing post.
I was called to report to the ambassador’s residence—the families of the deceased Kenyan staff members wanted information on their finances. As I entered the back garden I saw more than 200 Kenyans waiting for me to explain what they would do now that their sole breadwinner was gone. It wasn’t just 37 Kenyans who had died that day; it was hundreds of Kenyans, and Americans, whose lives had died that morning. That was the day that crushed me the most, the sheer extent of the horror sitting in front of those people, who were all waiting to hear “What’s next for us?”
Fast forward to 2012, when I was once again serving in Nairobi. I was chargé d’affaires when I was called to the embassy late one night. We had pictures of a foreigner who had been killed in Somalia, and he looked just like Fazul Mohamed, al-Qaida’s reported mastermind behind both bombings. Fourteen years of searching, with a $5 million reward, finally paid off. For my small part, I sent two FBI agents to the Mogadishu airport early the next morning, and they confirmed through fingerprints that this bastard was dead. I felt a circle had been closed.
Tears Taste the Same Everywhere
Brian W. Flynn
U.S. Public Health Service
The remains of the Foreign Commercial Service office, and an adjoining restroom, in U.S. Embassy Nairobi after the blast.
Courtesy of August Maffry
When the attack occurred, I was on active duty as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service where, among other roles, I directed the government’s domestic disaster mental health program. USAID asked me to come to Kenya (passing on a request from the Kenyan Medical Association) to advise on the psychosocial impact of the bombing on Kenyans. In Nairobi, I was based in the combined USAID/State Department building, and soon became engaged in observing and consulting on the psychosocial impact on members of both of those organizations, as well as the Kenyan response.
I worked closely with all levels of both organizations, including the medical leadership and Ambassador Bushnell and her staff. Later, I worked with USAID to review and administer a mental health program for Kenyans. I also worked with other U.S. mental health colleagues to assess the mental health impact of the bombings in both Kenya and Tanzania.
Working on the other side of the world with Americans, as well as people of different local cultures, was a new experience for me. I felt an urgency to make an impact quickly and to try to determine what of my knowledge and experience applied here. Candidly, I was not as confident in my abilities as usual.
I was also struck by witnessing the very personal impact on U.S. personnel who needed to lead in the midst of personal loss, as well as organizational and political upheaval.
While I was in Nairobi, my home in Maryland was robbed. I learned through a late-night call from my wife; she and our young daughter were terrified. I learned what many USAID and State Department folks know all too well—sometimes professional responsibilities must trump even powerful family needs.
I learned a great deal from my Kenya and Tanzania experience; and that, along with the experiences of those I encountered in Kenya, continues to inform my teaching, consulting, mentoring and writing. Our combined experience has helped to better prepare a new generation of disaster and emergency mental health personnel.
I would like to pass on the following advice for those who may become survivors and helpers in the future. As a helper, be as prepared as you can be, but know you can never be as prepared as you want to be. Know and respect the organizational culture in which you work and the culture of those you serve. Understand that tears taste the same no matter the color of the cheeks over which they roll.
You Will Survive
Justus Muema Wambua
Warehouse Team (FSN)
I arrived at the scene 30 minutes after the blast. It was terrible. There was no light. You could not see anything in the building. We were instructed to use flashlights, which we brought from the warehouse. When we got inside the building, it was so sad for me because I went to the location where my friends were, in the shipping department. I found all of them dead. I was shocked. The first was Geoffrey Kalio, then Joseph Kiongo, Dominic Kithuva and others.
When I saw that, my mind was confused, even my pressure went up; but God is good. I tried to put myself into another frame of mind because there was nothing else to do, and I gained strength and started to move the bodies from the building to the mortuary.
I have three children who were in school at that time, and they were affected very much because they saw me every evening after work. And I was working 24 hours at the embassy to make sure all the bodies were out of the building and sent to a designated place to await a burial date.
My children were worried. “What is happening to Daddy?” they cried. They constantly asked their mother where I was. She had a difficult time.
What makes me who I am is praying to God. Today, when I hear a sound like a blast, I just feel scared because of that experience.
I would like to tell friends that when a blast comes and you are not dead, take comfort in that, and you will survive the situation.
A Scene from Hell
August “Gus” Maffry
August Maffry stands at the memorial to the victims, erected at the site of the former U.S. embassy in Nairobi.
Courtesy of August Maffry
9:55 a.m. My deputy, Riz Khaliq, and I met the ambassador in the embassy underground garage and headed for the Cooperative Bank Building next door—about a 90-second walk—for a meeting with the Kenyan trade minister. The ambassador’s driver escorted us. We joked that he should carry the flag, usually mounted on the limo’s front fender, high in his hand, because he and the ambassador were on foot for a change.
10:05 a.m. In the minister’s 20th-floor office, we talked for 20 minutes or so about bilateral relations and plans for the upcoming visit of Commerce Secretary William Daley.
10:35 a.m. A very loud boom stopped the meeting and brought everyone to their feet, puzzled. My first thought was terrorism, as I had heard bombs go off near the embassy in Rome 10 years earlier. Against my better instincts and training, I approached the office window to within a few feet to have a look and asked, “Is there some construction going on?”
“Well, you never know what’s going on in the railyards [across the street],” the minister observed. Ten seconds had passed since the first boom.
The next moments defy description—no words are adequate.
First, the plate glass window was silently caving toward us, imploding and coming apart in slow motion. I saw the glass separating into shards (or thought I did). I felt a terrific wind, but no sound. I remember an astonishing sense of disbelief as the whole office disintegrated in an instant amid the comic book CRRAAACCK of a massive explosion.
Dust and smoke were everywhere. Imagine an earthquake, tornado and hurricane hitting at the same time. It felt like the end of the world, a sense so many articulated that day. I lost consciousness for a few seconds, perhaps half a minute. Having been thrown across the room, I was disoriented in time and space and struggled to understand what was happening. I was facedown, unable to see anything or breathe right, and covered in dust and debris, as the whole ceiling had come down in pieces. I wondered whether I was dying or already dead.
The terror transcended fear in the usual sense—I guess that’s why they call it terror. No pain, just disbelief and acceptance. The force of the explosion was so great that I was certain no one in our vicinity had survived.
As the shock wave and sound passed, I realized I was conscious and probably alive. I got to my knees and checked that my limbs were still there. I suspected head and chest wounds but didn’t know how bad they might be. The blood and dust were blinding me; I could see only broken furniture and pieces of the ceiling.
I couldn’t see or hear much of anything, including my colleagues, but I could see the office was evacuating into a stairwell. As we descended, it was a scene from hell. I gradually realized that the whole skyscraper had been blown up, not just the minister’s office. At each landing, the doors, walls and partitions were gone. I could see daylight in all directions, all the way out through the windows on each floor, where offices now in ruins had stood. It had still not sunk in that the bank may not have been the primary target, but was merely a collateral target.
I was being swept on in a tide of humanity trying to escape the building, down the stairwell to the exit some 40 flights below.
People screamed, moaned and prayed. One woman kept repeating, “Dear Lord, if you get me out of this I swear I will never sin again.” It was raining blood; the banister was slick to the touch. I stepped over three dead or dying bodies. There was no stopping, though, just a mass of people pressing on and down, not knowing whether there would be another explosion, a building collapse—not knowing whether they would survive. The real danger, it turned out, wasn’t another bomb but panic. I kept pleading with people that if they wanted to get out of there, they’d have to remain calm and not push. There was no panic.
My office sustained 70 percent casualties: two killed and two blinded. Both surviving victims have successfully rebuilt their lives. I was determined to put our office back together and succeeded, thanks to the dedicated efforts of my remarkable U.S. and Kenyan staff. I was also inspired by Ambassador Bushnell’s leadership. After the bombing, some of us went off on medevac to the hospital. The ambassador herself, with glass cuts, shaken and bloodstained, was back at work the same day. I also remember Riz Khaliq’s presence of mind in escorting Ambassador Bushnell out of the bank building.
This is what helped as I created a new normal for my life: The South African Air Force medevac team and the medical staff at Mil One in Pretoria got me through the early days. As for later PTSD problems, my hat is off to the civilian psychologists, some at the State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services, but mainly at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Those military guys sure understand explosions.
I appreciate the fact and quality of life like never before. I no longer worry about something like having to get up early. It’s a thrill being able to do that, because I can. I don’t worry much about the small stuff.
Given what I learned that day, I would like to pass on the following advice for those who may become survivors or helpers in the future.
• Don’t dwell on survivor’s guilt. That was fate at work.
• Being present at a terrorist attack might seem like bad luck. If you survived more or less intact, however, you weren’t unlucky: you were lucky. Those who perished or were severely injured, and their families, are the ones who need our support and deserve our homage.
• Think about what is really needed in an emergency. On Aug. 7 at the Nairobi Hospital emergency room, where there were 2,000 admissions in one hour, it was sandwiches for the overworked staff that were needed, more than doctors, nurses and medicines.
•Be sure to send some staff home to rest right away, so everyone doesn’t get tired at the same time.
•A word to the wise: Stay away from windows.
Bombings Were Not on Our Radar
Lee Ann Ross
Deputy Director, USAID/Kenya
The memorial erected on the grounds of the old U.S. embassy in 2001.
Zweifel / Creative Commons
State and USAID were in separate buildings about three miles apart. The eight-story USAID building became the offsite command center after the bombing, and USAID FSNs played an important role. The embassy moved in with us until they were able to set up a temporary building. We took an already crowded building and turned it into a ridiculously crowded building, yet somehow it all worked.
When the attack occurred, I was photocopying at the USAID building, and I thought a container had fallen off a lorry. Having grown up in Laos during the Vietnam War, I instinctively moved away from the windows. When I saw the smoke rising from near the embassy, I thought the Kenya Teachers Union offices had been bombed, as they were on strike and at odds with the government.
Chaos ensued. When the ambassador arrived and asked for a volunteer to manage the offsite recovery effort, I volunteered. I was the USAID deputy director at the time, and it was my second posting to Kenya, so I knew my way around town, and I knew my staff well. The fact that a USAID officer was designated to be in charge spoke to Ambassador Bushnell’s successful effort to build a true Country Team. All of us got along well. We were an embassy family, not a collection of acronyms. I doubt there was an embassy in the world that was better positioned than we were to get through this.
We got blown up. We were a high crime threat post, but a low terrorism threat post. Crime was stressful but expected. Bombings were not on our radar. No one expected this.
In 1998, there was no 911 in Nairobi. No FBI, no Federal Emergency Management Agency, no first responders, virtually no ambulances. We were on our own. At the USAID building, we started trying to figure out who was alive and who was dead. We tried to use the phone list, but that was out of date. We used the radio list for U.S. personnel, and we called the regional accounting office in Paris for the Foreign Service National payroll list.
Our Kenyan staff worked the phones, taking calls from families wanting to know if their loved ones were alive or dead. If they were dead, we asked the families to come to the office, as we didn’t want to give out death notices over the phone. At one point someone from Washington asked if we trained folks to do this. Are you kidding?
I called all the counselors I knew in town and asked them to come down. I told them I didn’t know exactly what we needed, but I knew we would need their presence. Someone ordered body bags.
There is nothing normal about surviving a bombing that takes more than 200 lives, but staying together and being with folks who shared the experience helped normalize it. I can’t imagine rotating to a new post where no one could begin to understand what happened. We became our own family, and we created our own normal.
On the USAID side, we received $34 million from Congress to help bomb victims, which meant we continued to do bomb work every day for years after the bombing. This event did not go away.
Advice for those who may become survivors and helpers in the future:
• Get to know your peers, and become friends with your colleagues in other agencies. Break down the institutional barriers. Get to know and respect your FSN colleagues. They are smart, and you never know when they may save your butt.
• Each person will react in his or her own way. Don’t hold their reactions against them. They did the best they could do at the time.
• The disaster tourists will come and go. They won’t be very helpful. Nothing in D.C. will change because of their visits. You are not obligated to reinjure your psyche by taking them on tours of the blown-out building so you can tell them whose blood is on the wall. Take care of yourself first.
• If your embassy gets blown up, accept that all of you are on your own. If you think Washington gets it, you are kidding yourself. Washington is interested in placing blame, not in helping you. You’ve been told your whole career that you are among the best and brightest. For State MED, this translates into “You don’t need help.”
If you get PTSD, they’ll say, too bad for you; it means you are weak. But this response denies you your humanity. Guess what? You probably will get PTSD if you go through something like this. You will be on your own to get help. Do so.
• Remember: you are human. PTSD is a physiological reaction to trauma. It is normal. It is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. What is not normal is for the State Department to deny services to its employees who, almost by definition, go around the world collecting traumatic events over a career. It is unconscionable. If you have cancer, MED will refer you to a specialist. Will they do the same if you come in with PTSD? No. Can you get worker’s compensation for this? Yes, you can. Document your trauma, and apply for it.
Will you be considered damaged goods by the system? Probably. Will you be damaged goods if you don’t get help? Surely. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for your family. To this day, my daughter tells me that she lost her mother due to the bombing. Don’t let that happen to you.
Coincidences in Life
Stanley K. Macharia
Senior Security Investigator (FSN)
It has actually been 20 years since the bombing incident and 10 years since I retired from Embassy Nairobi. Time passes; and yet all this is like yesterday. But looking at my own children, and now grandchildren, I realize that many years have passed, and I am without doubt getting old. At the age of 70, I must thank God that He has brought me this far and, most importantly, thank Him for giving me an opportunity to serve the U.S. government at the embassy in Nairobi.
In life, there are many coincidences. We draw many lessons from such occurrences. One of them so cardinal to my life is that in about 1994 the U.S. embassy (through a certain assistant regional security officer whose name I can’t remember) approached me to help secure the perimeter of the embassy. They had tried to approach Nairobi city authorities with no success. I made it my duty as the assistant commissioner of police in charge of police operations in the city, and had it done.
It was those metal barriers surrounding the embassy that saved me four years later. It is common knowledge that had the bad guys succeeded in driving the bomb carrier into the embassy basement, I would have died, together with all those who were inside at the time. The explosion would likely have uprooted the entire embassy and affected the entire Nairobi central business district and the environs, with terrible results. That means thousands more lives would have been lost, along with an unimaginable amount of damage to property.
Much of my story was covered in detail in an earlier statement, but I can’t forget to mention the second coincidence, the one that actually saved me.
This is what happened that day of the bombing. At about 10 a.m., I heard some explosions outside and decided to go and check. I headed to the rear of the building through the stairs leading to the basement. Halfway, as I was about to open the metal door to the motor pool office, something strange happened; I suddenly felt nervous, terrified, like one walking through a dark path, and all at once my instinct told me that all was not well.
Our Kenyan staff worked the phones, taking calls from families wanting to know if their loved ones were alive or dead. —Lee Ann Ross
I eventually and unconsciously made an about-face and started running toward the main embassy entrance. Before I exited the stairs, the bomb exploded. It was such a strong explosion that I lost control and fell to the ground. After a few seconds I gained consciousness and ran out; but before exiting, I met a lady I knew coming out of the Visa Section, and I helped her out. She was bleeding from some injuries. Luckily, I was not injured but was dusty. Later, I helped rescue the ambassador from the area and joined the security rescue teams that came to help.
As a result of this incident, the government of Kenya put in measures to combat this menace, and the security agencies are more alert than before. As a person, I learned to trust my instinct in every situation, as I continue trusting God in everything that I do.
Last but not least, I wish to mention that in January 2005, I attended the Senior FSNI Seminar in Washington, D.C. One of the lecturers discussing the 1998 Nairobi bombing insinuated that some local embassy employees knew about the bombing. This annoyed me, and I protested, because as far as I can remember, there was no such information.
I end with a positive note of appreciation. After 20 years the victims of the embassy bombing have been remembered and granted compensation that extended to their entire family and made a huge impact. We are now able to complete lifetime projects that will support our families for many years to come, and I take this opportunity to sincerely thank the United States government for this consideration. It has come at the right time for those who are living and the families of those who perished in the incident.
May Almighty God bless the government of the United States of America and all those who coordinated this matter [of assistance] from the beginning to the end.
Listening for Familiar Voices on the Radio
Co-Community Liaison Officer
I had planned to go grocery shopping with Sally, the wife of the assistant regional security officer, leaving my children with hers for a playdate. I also planned to stop by the embassy to cash a check, but at the last minute I changed my mind, feeling I had funds to purchase a few necessary items until the following week.
Sally’s driver Steven took us to Village Market to shop and enjoy a girls’ day out. The excitement of being in a new culture was intoxicating— my family had arrived in Nairobi only two weeks prior.
As we strolled the outdoor venue, Steven came running to me with a handheld radio and said anxiously, “Ma’am, something bad has happened—you should hear this.” We quickly learned of the embassy bombing as everyone was asked to stay off the channel, now the main line of communication. As we listened we learned two things—the magnitude of the damage, and that Sally’s son was on the radio trying to find his dad. At that moment we realized the children were already aware of the event. We needed to get back to her house as quickly as possible, but the main roads were being shut down. Fortunately, Steven knew a back way.
We continued to monitor the radio in search of familiar voices. We knew that Sally’s husband would be working closely with my husband, the regional security officer [Paul Peterson]. Neither voice was detected during the hourlong ride back to her house, and anxiety was beginning to build. When we finally arrived back at the compound, our children were playing, the sky was blue and it was a beautiful day. At first glance, everything seemed right with the world.
Spouses gathered in the living room of one home, and everyone placed their radios in the center of the coffee table, continuing to listen for familiar voices. The TV was tuned to CNN, which was broadcasting the aftermath of the horrific event. Hours went by, and some were relieved to hear their loved ones’ voices, while others remained numb.
I decided to return home with my children and try to remain calm, keeping things as normal as possible until I learned one way or another the fate of my husband. I was angry because he had not reached out to let me know if he was safe, but I reminded myself that he was working. This is what he was trained to do, and he works best under pressure. Stopping to call me would have been a selfish act, especially given the number of casualties.
The bombing occurred at 10:30 a.m. It was after midnight before I knew my husband was alive. When I opened the door for him, I discovered a man I barely knew. He was covered in black soot from head to toe. We clung to one another for what seemed like hours. As he showered and changed into clean clothes, I made sandwiches and coffee for him to carry back to the site as he returned to work. With our children safely tucked in their beds, all I could do was cry and pray for his safe return after the loss of so many.
I later learned that everyone in the line to cash a check that morning had died. Why I changed my mind at the last minute I will never know.
Over the next week, I volunteered to sort and categorize personal items found at the blast site. Shortly after, I accepted a position as the co-community liaison officer. I felt strongly that it was within my ability to contribute to the rebirth of the embassy and community morale.
My advice for such a time is to keep the event alive by remembering and honoring those who were lost, the victims as well as the survivors. Everyone has a story. Be compassionate. Listen and offer assistance and a shoulder to cry on. Be a friend.
The “Ripple Effect” of Trauma
FS Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist
I was deeply involved in the private practice of psychiatry in Asheville, North Carolina, on Aug. 7, 1998. I remember hearing the news stories about the bombing on television; but frankly, I did not pay much attention to them. To me, at that moment, the East Africa bombings were just another world tragedy reported on ABC nightly news. The impact on me only began four or five months later when, during my interview for a job with the State Department as a regional medical officer/psychiatrist, I wondered why so many of the questions had to do with how I would handle the psychological aftermath of an embassy bombing.
In disaster psychiatry, there is a lot of discussion of the “ripple effect” of a traumatic event, and my family and I were certainly affected by this rippling. My first trip to Nairobi in my new capacity as RMO/P was in the latter part of 1999, some 16 months after the bombing. When I arrived, I was not only new to Nairobi, but to Africa, to overseas living and to the culture of the Department of State.
I quickly learned that I was only one of many new people in such a position. In my role as the embassy mental health provider, I soon became aware that my work was exposing my wife and children to a community that was bereaved and angry. There were many who were cynical about the disaster response and about Washington’s efforts to help. We were in an environment that seemed continuously dangerous. My family resented me at times for having taken them from the beauty and safety of the mountains of North Carolina to this situation of comparative deprivation and threat.
I also became aware of the power of vicarious traumatization— the phenomenon in which people who hear stories of disaster over and over are themselves psychologically affected by the disaster. Many were skeptical about claims of psychological distress by those at the mission who, though in Nairobi during the bombing, were not at the embassy itself when the bomb exploded. But exposure to the dead bodies of friends, stories of death and destruction and pressure from all quarters to keep going took a serious toll on everybody. Vicarious traumatization was known to the disaster response communities in 1999, but was not yet recognized as a cause of PTSD by the American Psychiatric Association. This led to a lot of unnecessary instances of “blaming the victim.”
The embassy community at the time of our arrival was comprised of a mixture of survivors and of those who had come to help rebuild. Both groups were hurting. I was struck by the fact that some of those who were hurting the most were the people affected by the pain of their colleagues.
For all of us, the sense of community was especially important, a powerful force for healing. The new ambassador, Johnnie Carson, was a decisive and empathetic leader. This was his fourth ambassadorship, and he had seen the impact of the Rwandan genocide on the embassy community when he was ambassador to Uganda. He had a forward-looking focus and made clear the need to continue with the work that the U.S. government had been doing in Kenya before the bombing.
That work, which included formulating a response to HIV/AIDS, countering violent extremism in Kenya and focusing on the safety of the embassy community in Nairobi, was meaningful and inspiring. The leadership facilitated healing and restored the embassy’s ability to carry out its mission.
For the Kenyans, healing came through their local communities, families, traditions and religious commitments. The American survivors, being part of the transient Foreign Service community, had no nearby relatives. Many continued to live and work in Nairobi after the bombing, while others went to other overseas assignments shortly after the bombing. The Americans, in general, had much less social support than the Kenyan survivors. Still, the remaining community, though constantly in flux, was inclusive and tight-knit.
For those who may become survivors of trauma, I would encourage taking advantage of the social support offered by work colleagues. Identify trustworthy colleagues, and give and receive emotional support when needed. Think twice before criticizing those who are helping, as this can be particularly painful for them, and responders inevitably get some things wrong.
To the extent possible, we should take responsibility for our own emotional well-being during such difficult times. At some level, we all know that the State Department is not a person and cannot “care” for us. Individual people in the department often do care, and it helps to seek out and work with those people, to be thankful for them and to be thankful for what you will learn from a difficult period in your life.
Setting Up the Control Center at USAID
USAID Executive Officer
Elevators in U.S. Embassy Nairobi were destroyed in the blast. A woman was rescued by first responders from under the debris at this spot.
Courtesy of Paul Peterson
Friday, Aug. 7, was our tenth day in Kenya. I was just beginning to get to know the staff and find my way around. As I sat working at my desk, I heard a very loud explosion. Someone got a call that the embassy had been hit. I realized we had nearly our entire leadership there for Country Team; and as I saw the smoke continue to billow up, I knew this was a cataclysmic event.
The USAID building was several miles away from the embassy and was therefore untouched physically. We somehow got hold of Regional Security Officer Paul Peterson, and we were both thinking the same thing: USAID would become the control room and temporary embassy.
Meanwhile, we started to set up the control room, which entailed relocating staff, setting up tables, computers, and radio and telephone stations. We got a dedicated line from the post office, and established communications with Washington. But finding the State Department Operations Center number took far too long—that number [202-647-1512] has been included in every telephone register I have created since.
We had volunteers to cover the telephones and radios. These were not easy jobs. Other teams were set up to search the hospitals and morgues. The teams were made up of one American and one FSN to make it easier to get through any red tape and to identify staff. Except for those who were doing the actual rescues under dangerous conditions, these teams had the most difficult task.
What had been an office with 250 or so staff became a facility that housed nearly 500. As this was going on, we heard about the bombing in Tanzania and fears that there were possibly other bombs still out there. The RSO called for support from the Kenyans to help guard the USAID facility. We had already blocked off the entry to the road on both sides, with the main entry being controlled by our filled water truck. This meant that one of our drivers had to stay in the cab and move the truck back and forth for hours on end—a boring but absolutely essential job.
In the time that followed there was so much to be done. The events of that day, and the days and weeks that followed, will stay with me forever. Despite what some might believe, one does not simply move on. Even four years later, when I was leaving post, the psychiatrist and I spoke, and we figured that probably one-third of the staff were still suffering seriously from PTSD. Nothing would ever be quite the same again. I see it in myself, in my colleagues and in my kids, especially the youngest of the three.
I look back at those times and thank God (over and over) for the people we had at post, from our exceptional Ambassador Bushnell and our USAID leadership, to our U.S. and local staff across all the agencies who took on the many tasks required, some of which no one should have to endure, and for our friends at the British, Canadian and Australian embassies—as well as my exceptional FSN staff that worked tirelessly without question.
The world does not stop turning even in the direst of circumstances. At 2 a.m. on the Monday following the bombing, I left the office for the first time to see and hug my daughter before she was rushed into surgery for an emergency appendectomy. Dr. McCoy (the regional medical officer) told my wife, Wendy, that she had no choice but to take whatever surgeon the hospital could find; and, just in case the job was botched, she would put her on the list for the medical evacuation flight that the military was setting up. I could not imagine what my daughter was going through—a new country, a strange hospital and an unknown doctor— but she was courageous throughout. Fortunately, we ended up with a wonderful surgeon. Meanwhile, my eldest daughter had to look after our son while my wife was at the hospital. I was so proud of all of them.
The Things That Got Us Through
Memory is a funny thing. Twenty years on from Aug. 7, 1998, what sticks in my mind is not just the sound of the bomb blast or the shock wave that ripped through our embassy in Nairobi. It’s that, during the Country Team meeting that Friday morning, we had been discussing the topic of security briefings and how to instill an appropriate level of awareness in new arrivals without tipping them over the line to paranoia.
Of course, we were thinking primarily about Nairobi’s notorious reputation for crime rather than terrorism. Osama bin Laden was then still a relatively obscure figure, except for a 1996 interview in Time in which he had declared his jihad against America. Little did we know that this was just the opening shot in a protracted war.
Thus, my first thought after the blast was not “terrorism,” but rather that a fuel tank for a generator or something similar must have somehow exploded. That was my management officer’s mind searching for a logical explanation; the actual cause became clear as soon as I reached the ground floor.
I found myself looking through a huge hole in the back wall of the embassy to a deep crater and tangle of steel where the rear gate had been. Part of the car bomb’s engine had been propelled like a cannonball by the force of the explosion through the gate, several walls and an elevator shaft, impacting directly on Post One where the Marine Security Guard stood watch.
The Marine on duty was uninjured, thanks to the booth’s heavy-duty construction and no small measure of providence; but it was clear there would be casualties throughout the embassy. Time seemed to slow down, and I felt at that point as if I was entering a long, dark tunnel with no light to show where the end might be. I knew it would be a long time before we got back to anything that looked like normalcy.
The scene in front of the embassy was chaotic. A crowd of thousands had formed in the street, clogging Moi Avenue and extending around Haile Selassie Avenue to the rear of the building. Acrid smoke and dust filled the air. Mangled, burning vehicles and debris were all around. An office building next door to us, Ufundi House, was completely leveled, trapping people alive in the wreckage. Other buildings were heavily damaged, with shattered windows extending for several blocks in all directions.
Most surreal of all, a television crew and photographers had already started recording the scene and sending pictures to news outlets around the world. I’m told the State Department Operations Center learned of the bombing from a breaking-news alert, and my family back home knew that I was all right when they saw my face flash by on CNN.
Injured and bleeding people were everywhere. The bomb was an attack on the United States, but the vast majority of its victims were Kenyans, and they had to bear the largest share of suffering.
We went into “self-rescue” mode since Kenyan emergency services were stretched to the limit coping with the rescue effort at Ufundi House. Our medical unit set up a first aid station on the sidewalk, quickly evaluating, treating and arranging emergency care for the injured at local hospitals. They saved more than a few lives in the process. The RSO was in charge of site security and recovery operations. Search and rescue teams were formed and completed multiple top-to-bottom searches of the embassy, digging the last injured person from underneath a pile of rubble just before sunset.
Everyone pulled together and got on with what seemed logical and necessary. USAID immediately created space in their office building for an operations center and an interim embassy. Over the ensuing days, weeks and months, every employee of the 14 U.S. agencies in Nairobi played a role in the recovery and reconstruction effort. Many spouses and family members made equally significant contributions.
There was no manual for how to deal with such a crisis, but we did have an exceptional leader in Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, and she never let us stop being a Country Team for a single moment. More importantly, we never stopped being a community. Indeed, those bonds only grew stronger with time, and we became more like an extended family. That mutual support, and a shared commitment to help the families of those who died and the seriously injured, provided a clear sense of purpose and, in my view, were the things that got us all through the catastrophe.
Information Systems Manager George Mimba, left, and Management Officer Steve Nolan, at right, evacuate an injured staff member from Embassy Nairobi.
Courtesy of Paul Peterson
Ask Yourself What You Can Do
George M. Mimba
Information Systems Manager (FSN)
It was a beautiful, sunny morning. The embassy motor pool driver had just picked me up from my residence. I was scheduled to leave for Accra at 11 a.m. to attend the Africa Bureau systems managers’ conference, but first I needed to go to the embassy together with then Information Systems Officer Chris House.
I would be lying if I said I could describe the sound. It was too much for my senses. It was a big, ruthless blast that shook the entire building. I was thrown and landed on the floor on my belly. Walls started falling, ceiling and debris coming down on me. I was being buried alive in a place that was my second home. A place where I felt very safe, with Marines at Post One; a place I believed was terrorist-proof. I was wrong.
The choking smoke was too much. I knew I was going to die any minute. After fumbling for my badge in vain, I kept thinking how my body could be identified. It bothered me. I had no peace of mind. I could not breathe or open my eyes because of the dust and choking fuel smoke that filled up the building. I gave up and lay still.
The cries of my colleagues trapped under debris were so painful that I started moving on my belly, reaching out to those I could. I reached for one of my colleagues. His head had been shattered. By the time I reached where he was, he lay motionless. I kept moving, not inhaling too much.
Suddenly I felt fresh air, and started crawling toward it. Little did I know I was moving toward the edge of one of the windows which had been blown off! I said to myself: “If I can die outside this building, my body will be found intact, and be easily identified!” I have never understood why it was so important to me that my dead body be identified, maybe because my dad and family loved me so much that they would not have believed I was dead until they saw my body.
At the window, I saw the garden outside and decided it would be okay to die there. It was far down; but because I was going to die, I didn’t care where I landed. I closed my eyes and threw myself out of the window. I did not want to survive having seen the remains of what used to be my lovely colleagues. I landed, unconscious.
I was shocked when I realized I was still breathing. I had a feeling that if the embassy had been attacked by terrorists, they would be waiting to kill the escapees. I wanted them to see I had jumped out so they could shoot me. Somehow, I was convinced I had fractured most parts of my body but because I was still in shock I could not feel it. I could see I was bleeding but didn’t know where the blood was coming from. However, death was not forthcoming.
I decided to go over the perimeter fence with the help of the gardener, who had also been injured and was just lying on the ground. My fingers were bloody and too slippery to hold on to the iron bars of the fence. I managed to climb over it, jumped and landed on the pavement outside. I was bleeding, shaken and terrified.
At that moment, one of the ambassador’s windows came falling down on me. At first I did not know what it was. I thought it was a chopper sent to rescue us, but it was coming down on me! I rolled under one of the vehicles parked outside embassy parking … all this took just seconds. It fell with a big bang, and glass particles flew in all directions.
I crawled out and started toward the embassy door, drawn by the cries of my colleagues trapped inside. When I realized I could walk, I moved fast. Before I could start up the stairs, I saw an American lady with two little girls crying for help. They were trying to run out of the fence, but there was no opening. I started toward where the kids were. Bob Godec, the economic attaché, and I lifted the little girls over the fence and handed them to Linda Coulson, the admin secretary. I do not know what happened to their mother. I still don’t know whether she survived.
I started toward the entrance when one of the Marines came out with a gun: “Stay out of the building! This building will collapse anytime.”
I ignored him and continued.
“George! Stay out! I will shoot you!” the Marine barked at me again.
“People are dying inside, and there is no way I am going to stay here and watch my colleagues die. Go ahead and shoot me!” I shouted back in anger. He gave up and let me enter the building.
There is one thing that has been bothering me over the years: There was a man I helped out of the building, but I do not know whether he survived. The photograph appeared in Newsweek and Time of Aug. 17, 1998. He lost so much blood. I would be happy to know that he survived. After walking this man to the vehicle, I went to recover more victims.
I managed to hang on to what was left of the staircase and reached the first floor. Because it was still smoky and dark inside the building, I started calling out, “Is anybody there? Can you hear me?” It was quiet except for the noise that was coming from outside. I felt devastated, sad and weak. I did not know who among my colleagues was still under the collapsed walls. I did not understand why those I was laughing with a few minutes ago could not answer me. I did not understand what had happened to my staff and the visitor from Kigali.
At that moment, a woman’s voice called out my name: “George! George! Please help me!” Still on my knees, I moved in that direction, tapping bodies to feel any motion. “Yes, I got it!” I convinced myself. Without looking at the person I was pulling, I started for the stairs, forgetting it had collapsed. We fell, landing on top of Marine Post One! Rescuers came running and grabbed the person from me. They wanted to take me too, but I refused. I told them I was okay.
I raised my head to see if the person I had pulled out was the woman who had called to me. It was not; it was a man instead. I was happy I had saved him, but devastated. I have been waiting all these years for this woman to come and ask me why I did not help her! I still do not sleep when I think of that moment. I still hear it so clearly.
One of the Marines, who had earlier warned me not to go into the building, spotted me and ordered the rescuers to take me to the nearest hospital. At St. James Hospital, I regained awareness. I asked one of the nurses where I was and what had happened. The nurses protested, but I insisted on going back to the embassy. I limped to the main road and took a matatu (bus). I did not know I had no money on me. Seeing how heavily bandaged I was, the bus conductor did not bother to ask for the fare. That was the first time I got a free ride on a matatu!
I alighted and started limping back to the embassy. The same Marine spotted me and ordered that I be taken home. I was driven home in one of the cabs and escorted to bed. Still in shock, I began recollecting the moments before the blast and the aftermath. I was shivering and crying uncontrollably throughout the night.
The first person I asked for when I woke up was the late consul general, Julian Bartley. I was with Julian the night before the blast until past 10 p.m. in his office. Because it was the eve of my departure for Accra, I was trying to get pending work done. Julian used to call me every evening about email problems or just to chat. That night he had told me how he grew up, how he went to school and the challenges he faced in his career. He kept encouraging me to work hard. When he heard I was going to Accra the next day, he asked me to bring him an African mask. He told me to let him know before I left so he could give me $50 for the mask.
The next (fateful) morning, I had called him as he had asked. He requested I wait for him in my office, that he was bringing the money. I told him he didn’t have to, that I would use my per diem, and he could refund when I got back. He did not want to hear any of that. “Chief, man, I have to come and see you off,” he said. But I didn’t see Julian later. I never saw his body. I will never see him again.
In the following days I helped identify bodies, helped family members piece together what was left of the bodies and attended funeral services and burials in the countryside, representing the ambassador and reading her condolence message to the deceased families.
The embassy resumed operations at the USAID towers. The information systems center crew began counting the tech losses. A new computer system we had just installed eight months ago had been destroyed. My next worry, as the information systems manager, was whether the valuable information was intact. We started rebuilding the Department of State email system. Using salvaged computers and servers, we put together a network until we moved to the interim office building. Users could not believe they could read emails they had received and documents they had worked on seconds before the blast. The information was there. Our recovery plan had worked.
There is a saying that “time is the best healer,” but I don’t know if I will ever get over my Aug. 7 experience. To those who were taken, may your souls rest in eternal peace. This mission will never be the same without you.
To those who survived: Do not give up on yourself. Do not hate yourself as I do. God had a reason for saving your life. It is time you ask God what He has in store for you.
I came out of the bombing discouraged, a completely different person. I gave up on life, and did not want to hear about long-term plans or saving for the future. I do not park in basement parking spaces. Any loud sound makes me want to go under a table. Anytime I leave for work, I get the feeling that I won’t come back to see my family.
I concluded that there is no safe place on this planet, that one can die at any time. It made me more spiritual than before, always prepared for anything. Talking about it with those who have gone through similar experiences also helped me start a new life. I always ask myself what I can do for others as long as I am still alive.
The View from Washington
C. Steven McGann
I was scheduled to depart post the week of Aug. 11, 1998. However, a request to co-chair the FSI Labor Attaché course that summer brought me back to Washington in early July. The morning of the attack, I was the only FSO at the department who had recently served in Nairobi. For some reason, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the attack and turned on CNN to see the news of the bombing. I immediately went to the Operations Center to begin work on the emergency task force for the next three days. I didn’t leave the building again until Aug. 12.
During that period, I was challenged in ways unimaginable. Often speaking directly with Ambassador Bushnell through the single open line to Nairobi, I helped carry out her instructions through an unprepared interagency structure. There was no one to issue country clearances, prepare overflight requests or authorize deployments of military and civilian rescue teams.
I found myself making decisions far above my (then) FS-2 rank while briefing Seventh Floor and Bureau of African Affairs principals, particularly for media interviews.
Being familiar with the emergency procedures we had practiced at post gave me the opportunity to help colleagues at post who were dealing with the traumatic aftermath on the ground. Having a familiar voice on the other end of the line reassured them. During those three days, I often found myself speaking with family members of unaccounted-for embassy personnel from all agencies and the military. That was the toughest duty.
The bombings reinforced the fact that the decision to become a Foreign Service officer should not be taken lightly. Moreover, it was the guide path that framed how I would interact with colleagues for the rest of my FS career.
Should you become a chief of mission, it is critical that you demonstrate every day that the Emergency Action Committee is your highest priority.
On March 3, 2003, the United States inaugurated a new embassy in the suburb of Gigiri, Nairobi.
Department of State / Public Domain
The Spirit of “Harambee”
Former USAID/Kenya Mission Director
I was at the Parklands Sports Complex watching the Kenyan Davis Cup team practice for an upcoming match. Having recently retired from USAID as the Kenya mission director, I was transitioning into a new position with the United States International University. This meant that I was free to move immediately to the site of the bombing to render assistance.
After a quick check of the USAID building, which was close by, I raced to the embassy. My first encounter was with Military Attaché Colonel Ron Roughead who, still in shock, reported that his entire team had been killed. I was asked by the embassy administrative officer to head out to the Kenya National Hospital, where most of the embassy personnel had been taken. It was paramount that all personnel, U.S. and local, be accounted for, along with their medical status.
While en route, I met my former secretary, Shabyna Kolker, who volunteered to assist me with this task. When we arrived at the hospital, local police informed us that only those carrying the injured and doctors were allowed entry. Fortunately, I had a business card that named me as a doctor—albeit a Ph.D. We were allowed passage.
Together, we covered every floor, hallway and operating room in search of embassy personnel. The image of glass shards being removed from faces and upper torsos remains prominent in my memory. In addition to recording names and conditions, we were able to console and bring people up to date on the status of their friends and colleagues. We also took messages for family members, promising to pass them on.
The tragedy served to bring the American and Kenyan communities closer together. The spirit of “harambee”—pulling together— prevailed. No task or request, big or small, went unheeded.
One of the most painful tasks was to locate the body of the consul general, Julian Bartley. Receiving a report that his remains were not at the makeshift warehouse holding area, I began searching local morgues. At the first stop, the city mortuary, I was forewarned by personnel that the sights might be overwhelming and that I should reconsider entering.
Not dissuaded, I pushed on and witnessed hundreds of bodies in unbelievable physical condition, piled on tables, floors and available gurneys. After viewing about 25 bodies, I had to rush outside for air. Back at the entrance, I was greeted by USAID FSN Menelik Makonnen and his crew, who had been scouting other facilities with the same task as mine. I was obviously showing some distress, because Makonnen immediately suggested that I not go back into the mortuary. He and his team knew Julian Bartley well; they offered to complete the search.
Certainly, many suffered from PTSD as a result of the bombing and its aftermath; many also gained personal strength from facing danger head on. Moreover, it was heartening to see the embassy and USAID come together to support one another, both logistically and emotionally. I firmly believe that it was the strong leadership of the ambassador that kept us afloat. For most of us—FSNs, contractors and government employees—Ambassador Prudence Bushnell made the critical difference.
Where We Slipped
Chief of the Kenya U.S. Liaison Office
“Memories are the key not to the past, but to the future,” as Corrie Ten Boom famously observed.
I remember telling people weeks after the bombing in Nairobi that it was just like a scene from a movie. But it was actually nothing like that. It was real and it was horrific; and the memories haunt many of us to this day.
But memories are fragile things that ebb and flow over time. The bombing of the American embassies 20 years ago summons images of those we loved, and those with whom we laughed and cried. My memory of that time invokes individual auras of compassion, heroism and leadership. It also offers the sharp and cutting edge of the evil that used the bombing as a launching pad for global terror.
A Vai (Liberian) tribal proverb says: “Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped.” Where we slipped is the blade that cuts into my memories of those who died that day. This story is, in fact, a rebuke of our government’s agencies and leaders, who did not put a high enough value on lives lost—not only in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, but in other attacks on our diplomatic outposts since Beirut in 1983. It is an admonition of the recidivism of the commissions, reports, investigations and boards that, since 1983, have pointed the finger at security, policy and intelligence failures, but have failed to hold accountable the seemingly unaccountable centers of power and their decision-makers.
Time and again, after a catastrophic event the pattern begins with condemnation and a declaration of thoughts and prayers. That is soon followed by a promise: “We will get to the bottom of this travesty by conducting a thorough study, appointing a blue-ribbon commission, accountability board or a complete review.” This is usually accompanied by the promise that “We will fix what was wrong and establish accountability.” The Accountability Review Boards’ reports on the facts and circumstances surrounding the 1998 embassy bombings have disturbingly similar verbiage to the Inman Report, which was published after the bombing of the Marine Barracks and the attack on the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983.
In part, the Africa report states: “The Boards were most disturbed at two interconnected issues: first, the inadequacy of resources to provide security against terrorist attacks and, second, the relative low priority accorded security concerns throughout the U.S. government—by the department, other agencies in general and on the part of many employees both in Washington and in the field. Saving lives and adequately addressing our security vulnerabilities on a sustained basis must be given a higher priority by all those involved if we are to prevent such tragedies in the future.”
Insist on accountability, not just words in a report from a review board. —Ron Roughead
It continues: “The Boards did not find reasonable cause to believe that any employee of the United States Government or member of the uniformed services breached his or her duty in connection with the Aug. 7 bombings. However, we believe there was a collective failure by several Administrations and Congresses over the past decade to invest adequate efforts and resources to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. diplomatic missions around the world to terrorist attacks.”
The report goes on to say that while policies and procedures were followed regarding threat assessment and security, the threat had changed, rendering those processes inadequate. It “found most troubling the failure of the U.S. government to take the necessary steps to prevent such tragedies through an unwillingness to give sustained priority and funding to security improvements.” The boards then made recommendations so this would not happen again.
But, of course, it did. Even after taking blatant partisanship into consideration, the report on the events in Benghazi reveal conclusions that are disturbingly similar.
My memories of Aug. 7, 1998, created a desire to make a home inside of me for everyone touched by those bombs—survivors and casualties, Americans, Kenyans and Tanzanians. But the knife’s edge of recollection of the failures will always be there. The only way I can touch those killed that day is to place my hand on their names etched into the memorials.
For those of you now in diplomatic outposts or soon to go, I offer the following advice. First, if you feel safe, you are probably vulnerable. Relentlessly let that vulnerability be known. Second, have the courage and persistence to give voice to your observations and assessments. Do so with the purpose of protecting those near you, as well as every innocent who passes by. Commit to this before an event, even to the detriment of your career. Third, never forget the value of life. It is not subject to risk and mitigation. Fourth, insist on accountability, not just words in a report from a review board.
I have no doubt that time and age will alter my view of that day and where we fell, but I will make every effort not to forget where we slipped.
You Can Never Be Fully Prepared
Worley “Lee” Reed
Officer-in-Charge of the Engineering Services Center for Central and South Africa
I left the embassy approximately 20 minutes before the attack to arrange an equipment shipment at the GSO warehouse. I was just leaving the warehouse when I heard a sonic boom. I radioed Post One, but no one answered. An FSN driver finally responded, “The embassy is bombed. The embassy is gone.”
I rushed back to the embassy and found my wife, Joyce, who had survived the attack. It was the longest 15 minutes of my life. We then began the search-and-rescue efforts. If I had remained in my office, I would have died in the rubble piled up eight feet off the floor.
There are experiences in this world that no human being should suffer. A major terrorist attack is one of them. The physical and mental trauma changes your life. You become a different person. I believe the odds of suffering from PTSD are almost 100 percent.
Your physical injuries will limit your ability to enjoy your previous activities. Your mental injuries cause depression, flashbacks, panic attacks and a strange sense of guilt. Your family and colleagues are directly affected, because your new behaviors affect them. PTSD is transmissible.
I specialized in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. I also have a master’s degree in psychology. Before the bombing, I thought I understood almost everything about terrorism and terrorist attacks. After the bombing, I discovered I had known little to nothing about them. As much as you may believe you understand terrorism, you will only understand the huge impact on the lives of survivors and their families by experiencing it yourself. I hope this never happens to you.
Everyone involved in a terrorist attack, including helpers, is a victim of the attack. You experience helplessness, vulnerability and a strong sense of isolation. If you are overseas, American help can be days away. In our case, the Kenyan government was paralyzed by the attack. If you survive, you become 911. The situation creates tremendous stress.
It would be easy to simply give up. You must fight to become a survivor (or warrior) by taking personal responsibility for your life and recovery efforts. While this “warrior” approach may seem strange to someone who has not experienced a terrorist attack, it is essential to personal survival. An anonymous quote states: “Fate whispers to the warrior, ‘You cannot withstand the storm.’ The warrior whispers back to fate, ‘I am the storm’.”
As a survivor/warrior, you cease being a person who helplessly watches experiences happen, and you become the person who shapes your own future.
It also helps if your spouse has experienced the same event. We will celebrate our 50th anniversary this year because we understand what happened to us and how to help one other.
As a Foreign Service member, there is a strong possibility you will be involved in a terrorist attack. There is literally nothing you can do to fully prepare for it.
A Most Difficult Job
Mathew M. Mbithi
President Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya, left, and U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell observe one minute of silence during a memorial service on Aug. 20, 1998, for the victims of the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi. Hundreds of Kenyans participated in the service.
AP Photo / Sayyid Azim
On Aug. 7, 1998, I was an employee of the embassy in Nairobi. As a warehouseman, I was assigned to go and clean an embassy property. I had to pass through the embassy building to collect the key around 8:30 a.m. I proceeded with colleagues to the house when I found that I had taken the wrong key, so I had to return to the embassy to get the right key. I grabbed the right key around 10:15 a.m. Remember, the blast occurred at 10:45 a.m., so a delay of 30 minutes would have been a disaster for me.
I went back to the house, and just before I opened the door, I heard somebody shouting from the radio in our vehicle: the embassy had been bombed. We stopped everything and went back to see what had happened. On reaching the scene, everything was in a mess, with people crowded everywhere.
There were people trying to help the injured, and we joined in. First, we removed the dead bodies, loading them into our warehouse trucks and taking them to a temporary container at the warehouse. Then, around 6 p.m., we had to remove those bodies and take them to various morgues, due to the large crowd of people gathered at the gate to look for their next of kin. It took almost the whole night since we were also looking for colleagues who had not been found at the scene.
The next day, our work as warehousemen was to remove everything from the building. We at the warehouse continued for at least a month setting up another office for the embassy at a place called Parklands. After some time, the embassy was moved to another place, called Ole Seleni, along Mombasa Road.
We stayed there for about five years as the new embassy was being constructed at Gigiri, near the United Nations headquarters. Then we later moved and settled there.
This tragedy greatly affected me and my family. I had to go through several counseling sessions offered by the embassy until I was able to regain the strength to continue with my normal life. It was not easy, because my family was also affected psychologically. I had to get counseling for them so they could continue normally.
One criminal was arrested and taken to U.S. court, and after being convicted he was sentenced to life in prison. Though some of my colleagues received compensation [from frozen assets of Sudan and others], not every survivor did, myself included.
It is my appeal to those who have experienced this kind of tragedy to stand firm and advocate for peace in the world so that something similar does not happen again.
I Have the Ambassador Here
Rizwan “Riz” Khaliq
Commercial Officer on Temporary Duty
I met Ambassador Bushnell in her office a little before 10 a.m. We departed to meet with the minister of trade, walking over ground zero just about 30 minutes before the bombings. The location of the meeting was on the 20th floor of the bank building next to the embassy. During the meeting, we heard a loud noise outside.
I stood up and walked over to the window, and as I looked outside the truck bomb exploded. I learned later that the first loud noise was a grenade, which was designed to draw people to the windows before the truck bomb was detonated, to cause maximum damage.
Once the bomb exploded, I was thrown 10 to 15 feet through the air, hit my head on something and passed out. When I woke up and realized I was alive, I went into autopilot. I looked for Gus (August Maffry, the new commercial officer in Kenya) and Ambassador Bushnell. I didn’t find Gus, but I did find the ambassador passed out on the floor. I picked her up and began to find my way out of the building.
The stairwell was full of smoke and darkness, people rushing to evacuate, pushing and shoving. I will never forget the smell of death and the carnage caused by the bombing. As we exited the building, at which point the ambassador was awake, I shielded her and ran over to the embassy where the Marines were.
I screamed to the Marine, “I have the ambassador here. We need to get inside.” He instructed me to get into a car that was waiting to evacuate us from the site, but I wanted to get into the embassy. Jenny, my wife, was supposed to meet me in my office after my meeting to go to the commissary and for lunch. I was scared and desperate.
The Marine made it very clear that no one was getting into the embassy, so I took the ambassador to the car. Once we were in the car and we began to move away from the embassy, I asked the driver where he was taking us, and he said to a temporary location. I needed to know if Jenny was okay. I instructed the driver to take us to my hotel. As we walked into the hotel, I asked the front desk to send the hotel doctor to our room as soon as possible.
As we exited the elevator, Jenny was running down the hallway. I could not have been happier. However, as I said before, I was on autopilot. I handed the ambassador to Jenny and asked if she could help her clean up and prep her to make comments to the media. If the attack was on the American embassy, we needed to show whoever did this that they did not hurt the United States. Jenny did just that.
The bombing has had a lasting impact on my life. I have had to continuously manage my PTSD. Yet it has also given me a drive that I am not sure I would have if I had not been through the experience—the drive to be a better person, to be grateful for the chance to be alive and to never be a victim.
The support from my wife and my family has been at the core of being able to create a normal life. I see the success of my life being realized through the success of my family and friends.
My advice? Focus on the fact that you are here and you are loved, and don’t allow “survivor’s guilt” to rob you of your happiness. You represent the greatest country in human history, so be proud of who we are as Americans, no matter who is in the White House. American values and the American spirit are everlasting and transcend generations.
DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA
We Will Not, and Cannot, Forget
John E. Lange
Chargé d’Affaires, Embassy Dar es Salaam
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the memorial in front of Embassy Dar es Salaam honoring those who lost their lives in the Aug. 7, 1998, attack on the embassy. This photo was taken in 2006 when Albright, who was Secretary of State at the time of the East Africa bombings, made a private visit to the memorial.
Department of State
I heard a low, rumbling sound a second before the office windows blew in over my head and landed on the people in front of me. As I would later learn, a bomb with the equivalent of 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of TNT had exploded, killing 11 people and injuring more than 85. The American embassy in Dar es Salaam was in ruins.
Our community—about 50 American employees, a few hundred Tanzanian Foreign Service National staff and all the family members—was in a state of shock. Yet we were united: in our grief for the dead, in caring for and supporting the survivors, in resurrecting embassy operations, and in welcoming the VIP visitors and hundreds of temporary duty employees who came to assist.
As I wrote in the March 2001 Foreign Service Journal, absolutely everyone—Foreign Service generalists and specialists, Foreign Service Nationals, family members, Foreign and Civil Service employees in Washington, and many, many others—was critical to our recovery. Everyone mattered.
Two months later, when the FBI no longer needed the bombed-out building for evidentiary purposes, we offered all employees the opportunity to return to the embassy to see the devastation they had escaped in the minutes after the bombing. Interestingly, roughly half declined the opportunity and never wanted to go inside that building again, while the other half were eager to revisit their old offices and talk to others about what happened.
Those feelings continue today: some wonder why we keep discussing that horrible day and feel it needs to be left in the past where it belongs, while others find discussion of the bombing, and the lessons we have subsequently learned, to be therapeutic.
I am in the latter category, and in the decade after the bombing I gave numerous speeches on the event and on leadership in a crisis. Once, after I addressed participants in the deputy chief of mission course, the Foreign Service Institute instructor told me that it seemed as if I was visualizing my actions minute-byminute in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. She was right.
Everyone who was in Dar es Salaam on Aug. 7, 1998—even those miles away from the embassy—heard and felt the blast, and they remember it to this day. I’ve had conversations in which people such as scientist Jane Goodall (who was in her home in Dar es Salaam at the time) and former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete (who was foreign minister in 1998) described exactly where they were, and how they reacted, when the bomb went off.
Even for those survivors who prefer never to talk about the bombing, reminders are frequent. I still remember sitting in my State Department office with a window, years after the bombing, and hearing the low, rumbling sound of the president’s helicopters—only to be reminded of Aug. 7, 1998. I once told a U.S. military officer that every time the media mention “the East Africa bombings,” I recall my experience in Dar es Salaam. He compared us to “war widows,” whose spouses were killed while in the armed forces during a war; every mention of the war serves as a reminder.
Osama bin Laden’s simultaneous 1998 attacks were the Foreign Service’s wake-up call on terrorism, but the 9/11 attacks three years later were a wake-up call for the United States as a nation. When 9/11 occurred, many of the Dar bombing “alumni” were very upset that bin Laden had not been captured earlier. And many of us relived the trauma of the East Africa bombings, with some using words such as “dysfunctional” or “incapacitated” to describe themselves. At that difficult time, I was the ambassador to Botswana, and I remember my staff confidently looking to me as their leader based on my experience leading Embassy Dar es Salaam in August 1998. I did my best, even though I was emotionally devastated.
I do not know how many of us suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, but I know that many do. Some of the people who were the most fearless in the weeks after the bombing, bravely working to restore U.S. government operations, suffered the most later. One of the most important actions the State Department took was to send psychiatrists to talk with the staff about our experiences. But many of us believe that much more needed to be done in the months and years afterward. Just as the U.S. military is increasingly aware of the large number of cases of PTSD in war veterans, the State Department and the families of survivors need to be aware of the continuing mental health needs of those who go through such a traumatic experience.
An important element has been the relentless pursuit of justice by the U.S. government. There have been three criminal trials in federal district court in New York, and several Americans, Tanzanians and Kenyans have testified. All trial defendants charged in the bombing conspiracy have been found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Professor Susan Hirsch, an anthropologist, was nearing the end of her time as a Fulbright Scholar in Dar es Salaam at the time of the bombing. She was in the embassy while her Kenyan husband, Abdurahman “Jamal” Abdalla, waited outside. He died in the blast. She grieved with the help of friends and families on two continents, and later witnessed the 2001 bombing trial in federal district court. Her introspective book, In the Moment of Greatest Calamity (Princeton University Press, 2008), examines the important role that the quest for justice can play in the recovery of survivors of terrorism.
Our Dar es Salaam group developed a bond that continues today. Annually around the anniversary of the bombing, many American and Tanzanian bombing alumni send “thinking of you” email messages to the group to commiserate and to provide family updates. As one person wrote, “Each year the pain of Aug. 7, 1998, rushes back. But longstanding ties of friendship, family and community make it bearable. It’s good to be in touch with this group every year and to acknowledge what we have all been through.”
We will not, and cannot, forget.
Anxiety Slowly Turned into Depression
Monica Stein Olson
Touching my belly over my clothes, I drove to the embassy Health Unit for my first prenatal checkup. Dr. DaSilva wanted me to start early because of two miscarriages over the past two years. He was concerned that I was at risk given my age. That day, I took the earliest appointment, at 9 a.m., because I didn’t want to be too late for work. USAID was located about a mile from the embassy, and I had a meeting at 10.
I parked on Laibon Road, right in front of the Konners’ house, directly across from the embassy. I fretted that the Konners were on vacation that week, and there would be no Friday summer playgroup for my boys, 4 and 2. Normally I would drop them at 9 a.m. I hated leaving them all day with the nanny, but my husband, Steve, was traveling outside of the country. I did not know at the time, but the timing of the Konners’ vacation saved all of our children—the explosion sent a huge fireball into their home, incinerating everything in its path.
I got out of my car and glanced at the line forming for visas. I waved to the young female guard whose dream it was to work for USAID. She was taking secretarial classes at night. I could tell she wanted to talk about a job opening, but I was in a hurry. Looking back, I wish I had stopped, even for a moment. But I didn’t know that her life would be extinguished just an hour later.
About 9:45, I drove to the office, happy with the thought of finally having another baby. But my happiness ended less than an hour later, and I didn’t get it back for years. At 10:39 a.m., we heard a deafening BOOM. And then the building trembled with what I later learned was the shock wave from the blast.
For two weeks straight, we ran on adrenaline, working long hours trying to make sense of what happened. I thought about how life was so random. I was fortunate that I went to the embassy for an early appointment. What if that slot had already been taken? I was fortunate that the Konners were on vacation that day. What if they hadn’t been away? What if my husband hadn’t been on a trip and needed to be at the embassy that morning?
I started to have panic attacks. I had constant feelings of dread. I had difficulty concentrating. I was exhausted and irritable. I thought about the young female guard. Most of all, I began to anticipate terrible scenarios involving my children and became unreasonably protective of my family. I wanted the boys to push stuff up against their doors at night. I wanted them in our room at the foot of our bed. I kept imagining the boys at their playdate at the time of the bombing. And I imagined losing my baby. I didn’t—we had a healthy girl; but I was still constantly fatigued and sad, and I didn’t know why.
The anxiety slowly turned into depression. In Moscow five years later, I was asked to say a few words on the anniversary of the East Africa bombings. I opened my mouth, and nothing came out. I tried to say the words, but I couldn’t. They wouldn’t come out.
I went to the embassy Health Unit, where they told me: “You are a working mother and have three young kids. This is normal. Go home.” I knew something was wrong when, later, I met up with Ambassador Lange and, for no reason at all, began to sob. I had been depressed by then for years. By the time I got to Morocco, I could no longer function. I was constantly worried about my children, and I had lost interest in everything.
Once, when my daughter was running on the beach and a large dog began running behind her, I screamed myself into hysteria when there was no real threat. It alarmed my husband, and my emotional state began to affect my marriage and family. But things only got worse. I had nightmares about our children dying. And then our daughter became severely depressed. I needed to seek help, again, so I could help her.
Where I grew up, in the Midwest, my parents never dreamed of going to a therapist. We were made to think that was only for weak people. But when my 6-year-old daughter was “psychovaced” from post for depression, we got her the help she needed. She got better.
But I got worse. Fortunately for me, one of the embassy FSOs had a spouse who was a psychiatrist. And she was a friend. In one of my bleaker moments, I called Susan and said, “You need to make an appointment with me right now, because I will never call back.” And she did. As FSOs, we are so fearful of losing our security clearances, so people don’t ask for help. Susan helped me over a two-year period. She often reminded me that my daughter and I both suffered the same trauma, even though she hadn’t been born yet! Today we are both happy and healthy, physically and mentally.
Remember that we all get stressed. And we don’t have to get bombed to suffer from anxiety, depression or PTSD. A study done for USAID by Greenleaf Integrative two years ago uncovered startling statistics showing that the majority of FSOs overseas undergo many of the same stressors as our soldiers in combat experience. We, too, serve in places without our families; we have crushing workloads; we have difficult or unsupportive supervisors; and we work in conflict zones.
My advice? Be resilient. Aim for work-life balance. Take vacations. Find a hobby. Focus on family. And above all, do not be afraid to seek help. We all need it at one point or another in our careers.
One more thing: As I learned the hard way, our children also feel our stress and can fall into depression themselves. Make sure that you listen to them. Did my therapy affect my security clearance? No. I am just grateful that I finally got help.
A U.S. Marine talks with Regional Security Officer John DiCarlo in front of Embassy Dar es Salaam in the aftermath of the Aug. 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing. Eleven people, including seven locally employed staff members, died in the blast, and 72 others were wounded.
by DS Records [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bring Us All Together
Mailroom Supervisor, Information Programs Center (FSN)
God is great to us every day. On the morning of Friday, Aug. 7, every one of us was expecting a nice weekend while working halfday hours. Abruptly, between 10:30 and 10:45 a.m., the embassy ground was covered in debris, fire everywhere, people running around bloodied, others holding their hands over their faces.
I will say, “Oh! It’s my Lord God who makes that day for me!”
My work was in the mailroom. With one of my colleagues, Chris, we were to send our diplomatic mail pouch to Washington. We had the pouch ready to send to the airport, and we were outside by the main entrance where the car was already waiting for us to load the pouch. We loaded those bags, and Chris escorted the bags with the driver to where we prepare the freight documentation.
The car left at least five minutes before 10:30 a.m., and I was at the main gate talking to two of the guards: Mtendeje (who perished, may he rest in peace) and Mathew (who survived). I remembered that I left the mailroom door open while taking those pouches out, and the Marines usually take care of watching the door from their end. So, I told the guards, “Sorry, I have to go back to the office.”
I got to the door of my office and walked several steps before I heard a big boom. The shaking went on for a minute—a really heavy blast. Everyone was in shock. I checked the 250-pound door I used to come in and could not believe the way it was smashed. The first thing I did was walk back to my office and make a phone call to my family at Mbezi Salasala [outside of town] and ask them two questions: Are you all safe? Did you hear a boom?
The answer to both was yes. Then I told them it may have happened near to my office, I wasn’t sure yet, but keep your ears on. It took me a few minutes to secure things and find a way to go. By that time a few people had gathered on the mezzanine floor to find a way out as the Marine announced an evacuation, telling us to meet at the back because the front entrance was on fire.
We decided to walk up the stairs and through the west wing door the ambassador and deputy chief of mission use to get to the office. We gathered in the backyard. But the backyard to me was not the safest place to gather. Could the building collapse? Why don’t we get out of the campus completely?
We saw a ladder, which was hooked up on the barrier wall from the inside. I grabbed it and put it over the wall while someone brought another one, which we put outside the wall facing the French embassy offices. We used those two ladders to exit to Old Bagamoyo Road, and that is where most of the victims and injured ones were taken to the hospital. Muhimbili Hospital received those with critical injuries.
The fire was still heavy at the front because there were many cars parked there. The tires exploded and that made people worry even more.
This had never happened to our countries, Tanzania and Kenya! I had no idea someone like the coward and killer Osama bin Laden could land tragic twin bombs in African countries simultaneously.
The attack was very powerful and shook the city of Dar es Salaam and its districts. Groups of people gathered at every place in the city and district, with radio and television airing news of the bomb blast at the American embassy.
America, keep and bring Tanzanians and Kenyans together on this 20th anniversary. —Tibruss Minja
By the time we were struggling to get out of the campus area, I was not feeling anything besides shock. Within half an hour I was sweating and feeling a kind of headache. I was transported with others to Mikocheni Hospital where I received treatment, and they discharged me at 8 p.m. My friend lives near the hospital, and I was able to call him to give me a ride home to Mbezi Africana. No one knew my location since I had called home one minute after the explosion. That made my family contact friends, and they were focusing on Muhimbili Hospital while waiting to hear the names of those admitted or dead.
God is so great! I was home by 9:30 p.m. to find family and friends had already gathered, fearing my death had happened. They were in tears with happiness celebrating my appearance. “Are you the real one and surviving?” one of my sisters-in-law asked. “Oh! Thanks to the Lord! We have been grieving since we heard about the blasts, and we could not reach you. Welcome home again!” We had a long night that day.
The next day those who were not in the hospital met, and the plan was to arrange for a temporary office in the home of Public Affairs Officer Dudley Sims. Many thanks and prayers go to Mr. Sims and his family for allowing the office to relocate to their home.
A big team was sent from Washington to set up the office for business. It was great at Mr. Sims’ home because the house and the yard were big enough to accommodate most of the offices. Our mailroom office was at the back, where there was also the servant quarter. I remember that we had a lot of staff arriving to volunteer and also to work with the government of Tanzania on security issues.
New equipment to run the office and so many other things were arriving every day. You can imagine how much of the pouch and mail we received and delivered. Although the mailroom was small, we worked very closely with everyone, and the business was highly successful. No complaints. Thank God.
Many officials from the Department of State were visiting. We were thankful to President Bill Clinton for paying attention to the tragedy, allowing the State Department to send various teams that also helped find a new home for Embassy Dar es Salaam. They secured a temporary place at Kinondoni area, where we moved and stayed for a long time until the new land was approved on new Old Bagamoyo Road in the Msasani area.
And then, another terror attack, this one in New York City.
I was among the staff who were able to attend one of the trials for Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, which had a hearing in a New York court in 2001. We spent our week in New York visiting the World Trade Center. We left, and about three weeks later, 9/11 happened, claiming the lives of thousands of innocent people. May God rest all in peace! Amen. That was again painful to me.
As we remember the 20th anniversary, it’s time we also remember those who are not with us at this moment. And pray for their loved ones.
God bless our beloved Tanzania and Kenya; bring peace and love. Bring America closer to our country, and bless their highest efforts to help those in trouble who need to survive and live in peace and harmony.
America, keep and bring Tanzanians and Kenyans together on this 20th anniversary.
A memorial to the victims of the embassy bombing was erected at the national museum in Dar Es Salaam. A stone memorial listing the names of the victims is located on the grounds of the new embassy.
Laika Ac from U.S. [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Mummy, Are You Going to Die?
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Slater
Information Management Specialist
The markers show where Lizzie Slater was in relation to the bomb blast at Embassy Dar es Salaam.
Courtesy of Lizzie Slater
Getting this assignment had been difficult. As a tandem couple, we had been unable to secure assignments at the same post, so we did the next best thing and picked what we termed an “African commute” by choosing two neighboring countries and an hourlong plane ride. My husband, Charlie, and our 5-yearold son were going to Nairobi, while I accepted a job in the haven of peace, Dar es Salaam. We had struggled with where our son should be, but settled on Kenya because the International School of Kenya was touted as one of the best in the world.
At the very last minute, Charlie was told that he had to attend consultations in Paris before going to post. That forced us to part company in London, where we left our son with his grandmother while my husband traveled. He begged me to come with him, but my sense of duty won out, and I reported to my new post as scheduled.
Kissing my boys goodbye was heartbreaking, as I didn’t know when I would see them again. My son asked in a small voice, “Mummy, are you going to die?” Less than 48 hours after I arrived in Tanzania, my life changed forever when a massive truck bomb detonated about 50 feet in front of me.
My first day in the office had been hectic. I was replacing the sole information management specialist (IMS), Vella Wells (now Mbenna). So much needed to be done before she departed post in just a few days. I had much to learn as a first-time IMS, and I had to do my new arrival in-processing with the various management sections. I had my security briefing with the recently arrived regional security officer (RSO), John DiCarlo, who told me that he had changed a lot of security elements in his few weeks at post, but there was still a lot that needed to be done. Jetlagged and exhausted, I dragged myself home to my temporary residence and crashed for the night.
Day two started early. The opening procedures for a new post are a little different everywhere you go, so Vella and I got through “pulling the queue and clearing the traffic,” but before getting into the more serious briefings and handover of communications security I went to attend my “Welcome to Dar es Salaam” briefing with the community liaison office coordinator (CLO), Cynthia Kimble, who was due to depart on leave the next day. On my way to her office I passed Post One and noticed that RSO John DiCarlo was standing post. Recognizing him from the previous day’s briefing, I waved hello and stepped into the CLO office just down the hallway. Cynthia was on the phone, distressed and in tears, so I offered to come back another time, but she waved me in, directing me to take a seat. She smiled and said to me “everything will be all right”—and then the room went black.
I could hear terrified screams coming from Cynthia’s direction. I kept asking if she was okay, but she was hysterical and seemingly could only scream. I was buried under rubble. I had no sensation below my waist and figured that my legs were gone. I actually didn’t know what had happened yet, but I couldn’t move and I couldn’t help Cynthia. After a while, the screaming stopped. I didn’t know if she was all right or even there anymore. I realized I could see the sky, which surprised me as there were no windows in her office.
Then people were scrambling around clearing debris. I felt a hand on my shoulder and said something like, “Don’t move me. I think I have lost my legs.” This propelled them into frenzied activity. I heard, “She is alive.” Moments later there was this guttural cry, and I felt something hit the bookcase that was immediately on top of me. It dislodged, displacing everything that covered me, and I popped up like a cork in water. I was freed, and I could feel my legs. (Later I learned that it was the CLO’s husband, Gunnery Sergeant Kimble, who had used Herculean force to remove the debris covering me. My other rescuers were Chargé d’Affaires John Lange, RSO John DiCarlo and WAE Consular Officer Jon Edensword, who pulled me out of the rubble and moved me to safety.)
Getting out of the building proved to be even trickier. The stairwell was badly damaged; walls were at angles. About halfway down we found one of our local staff members sitting on the stairs. “We must get out of here; it’s not safe,” I told her, but she refused to move, saying only, “I can’t find my shoes.” I took off my shoes and gave them to her so she would come with us.
As we reach street level, the chaos and devastation is surreal, it seems like everything is in flames: the vehicles, a massive tanker truck, the buildings. People are trying to decide which way to go. My gut instinct is to get far away from the front of the building, where I now know a massive bomb has just exploded. I start shepherding people around the side of the building. We come across someone who appears to be skinned alive; he is barely breathing. I know I cannot help him medically, so I keep moving, leading our dazed group to the rear of the compound. I freeze when I see another tanker truck around the back, hoping that nothing bad will happen.
Other people climb down the back fire escape, and I approach to ask if they are okay. The first person I talk to backs up, screams and runs away from me. That is when I realize that I have some serious facial injuries.
A ladder materializes, and we start scaling the perimeter into a growing crowd on the far side of the wall, where people are being whisked off in waiting vans. Before I manage to get inside one, a news reporter has his camera trained on me. My immediate instinct is to hold up my travel voucher and cover my face—I don’t want my son to see me like this. It turned out to be a blessing for my siblings, who did see me on the newsfeed. For the second time that day, “She is alive” was repeated, this time with a sigh of relief.
We were all taken to the safe haven at the chargé’s residence, where I was immediately assessed by the medical team. The end of my nose had been ripped off and was dangling like an old broken door barely hanging on its last hinge. It was nothing lifethreatening, but it needed attention, along with the hundreds of head wounds I had sustained that were still pumping blood. I could wait.
I knew we needed to have communications with Main State, so I checked to see if we had set up a command center to connect with the Operations Center in Washington—we had. The nurse was now dragging me back to get my face attended to. She sat me down and said, “I don’t know what to do with your face, let’s irrigate it.” Sometime later, another nurse stopped by and looked at my face. She said and did the same thing, at which point I started laughing and said, “I see the headline now: ‘Bomb Victim Drowns.’” That lightened the mood in the room a little.
I was covered in blood, dust and grime. Everyone agreed that I needed to have a shower, as I had wounds covering my entire body. A kind spouse waiting in the safe haven offered to accompany me in case I passed out (everyone was worried about concussion); so I showered, but now what clothes to wear? Mine were shredded and filthy. I was given shorts and a T-shirt belonging to the chargé; I joked that I was ambitious, but thought that I would be trying to fill his shoes, not his britches!
As we reach street level, the chaos and devastation is surreal, it seems like everything is in flames: the vehicles, a massive tanker truck, the buildings. —Elizabeth Slater
Finally, the French embassy doctor was free to fix my face. He gently started removing the hundreds of pieces of glass embedded in my face, head, neck and shoulders and suturing the wounds, quietly reassuring me that I was going to look beautiful when he was finished patching me up. When he got to my nose, he hesitated before saying, “Close your eyes.” He smoothed out the skin that was torn from the sides of my nose, and it felt like he flipped up the nose to reattach it. I was done and headed out to find Vella, the outgoing IMS.
The next several days were a blur. We turned the public affairs officer’s residence into our new embassy building, where Vella and I, along with a RIMC [Regional Information Management Center] team sent to assist, worked day and night to get communications back up and running. The local telephone company managed to bring new 50-pair cabling to the house over the weekend (that took several miles of cabling installed down the road from the nearest exchange), giving us the ability to get our normal embassy phone numbers working at the new location. Our computers and servers were moved, and we installed a temporary local area network. With RIMC’s help, we installed a fly-away satellite communications kit and a TERP5 so our cable traffic would be operational again. They also brought a temporary telephone switch so that we could deploy phones on everyone’s desk. On Monday, Aug. 10, we opened our embassy at the new location, and people were able to get to work.
About five days after the bombing, the chargé said that he would like me to take a rest (“I am not asking you to sleep, just lay down and rest a little”). I woke up about 25 hours later. Three weeks later, while I was getting the new IMO settled in, I mentioned to him that my right leg had been bothering me the last couple of days—it was really painful. He suggested that I visit the embassy doctor, who had set up a clinic in another house.
My entire body was heavily bruised from head to toe. I pointed to the general area where I was feeling the pain, and the doctor pressed down on my leg to test where it hurt. My flesh just collapsed under his fingers, and he said out loud, “Oh dear, dead meat.” I looked at him and said, “For once in my life, I wish you used a medical term that I didn’t really understand.”
I had received a blunt force trauma injury during the explosion that basically “killed” that part of my shin, and now it had turned gangrenous. The good news is that the doctor provided exceptional care while treating this frightening injury, and my leg fully recovered, albeit with a beautiful scar as a constant reminder.
Likewise, my nose. My husband’s close friend in Florida, Dr. Ian W. Rogers, was an exceptional microsurgeon, and he had seen me on the news interview I did a few days after the bombing. Almost immediately after it aired, he was on the phone, telling me exactly what I needed to do to fix my nose until he could work on it when I returned to the United States.
My son’s question still haunts me to this day. During the lead up to our separated tours, we had been explaining, “You will go with Daddy to Nairobi, and Mummy is going to Dar.” He had understood that to mean: “Mummy is going to die.” That almost became a reality.
Hit with Disbelief, Disorientation and Fear
Justina “Tina” Mdobilu
Translator and Political Assistant (FSN)
The terrorist attack at the American embassy in Dar es Salaam continues to affect me, those close to me and, surprisingly, those I meet daily.
Immediately after the blast I was hit with disbelief, disorientation and fear. Some colleagues and I were taken by first responders to Muhimbili National Hospital for treatment. At the registration desk, as hard as I tried, I could not remember my family name, and so they only entered my first name initially. In a specialized ward, I encountered chaos as I tried to answer questions from anxious relatives who were looking for loved ones. The nurses were particularly concerned about me because I was eight months pregnant, and they feared I might lose the child.
After a doctor allowed me to go home, in confusion, I went to my parents’ house instead. There I found anxious relatives who had heard the news on the radio. After I returned to my own home, I discovered a relative had already called my family to say that I was dead.
After a few months I noticed I was becoming withdrawn and lacked confidence at the office. I was also losing interest in activities that were not strictly related to work. This was the beginning of two years of post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, panic attacks and claustrophobia. Not wanting to lose my job, I had to find ways of coping with my elevated perception of danger, like looking for seating near doors. I once asked a supervisor if I could step outside the office because I found it hard to breathe inside.
I particularly remember a trip where I escorted the ambassador upcountry by plane. I arrived at our destination with pain in my neck because of the tension of feeling claustrophobic and the fear of having a panic attack in mid-air. I later learned there were others who were suffering as I was, and that a colleague had suffered a mental breakdown.
One month after the bombing, I gave birth to a healthy boy. My husband and I named him Immanuel, meaning “God with us,” and we were thankful for life. However, it was during this time that I realized that I could barely hear with my right ear, and I wondered what this would do to my career as an interpreter/ translator.
I am careful about what I allow into my mind, and so I study my Bible and read motivational books. —Justina Mdobilu
I now live in the United States and work as an interpreter for Swahili-speaking refugees. I sometimes have to ask my clients to speak more slowly, to repeat what they just said or ensure that I see their faces if they are speaking rapidly, because otherwise I may not catch everything they say. I interpreted for a client last year who became aggravated because I was having trouble keeping up with her. At one point she turned to me and jokingly asked if I was becoming deaf. I told her that my hearing was not the same after the explosion. There are times when my children will tell me that my cell phone is ringing in my purse; I cannot hear it.
I have been affected also in how I relate to others. Although I briefly contemplated leaving the embassy immediately after the bombing, I quickly realized that I was probably not the only one on the planet who felt uncertain about life and premature, violent death. When I moved to the United States with my family in 2013, I found out that one could die by similar acts of violence in a movie theater, an office, a mall, an elementary school and even a church. Admittedly, all these examples do not fall strictly under the traditional definition of terrorism, but they carry its traits, which include violence, spreading fear and targeting innocent members of the public.
Living in the United States in such challenging times has forced me to become proactive for myself and my family. My children tell me sometimes that I worry too much, or that I am becoming paranoid; but I insist that as immigrants we need to become examples of good foreigners to people who may genuinely not understand. My American friends laugh good-naturedly when I call silverware “cutlery,” a garbage can “a dustbin” and refer to the trunk of a car as a “boot.” I suppose it also helps to laugh at yourself once in a while.
I am careful about what I allow into my mind, and so I study my Bible and read motivational books. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I may not be famous. I do not have a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account, but this quote inspires me to take the initiative, to boldly reach out to others in my circle of influence to understand, even as I seek to be understood, one person at a time.
I try with a friendly smile, a listening ear or even a simple hello. Over time I discover this requires patience and an ability to look at the bigger picture as I remind myself not to assume anything of anyone based on the color of their skin, their religious faith, where they come from or what I think they have done in the past. I must be willing to give others what I want to receive—that is, the benefit of the doubt.
Obviously, not everyone will respond how I would like, but I choose to focus on what I can control, and I leave the rest to God. My son, Immanuel, is a constant reminder that good happened to our family during that horrific time in 1998. And because of this, I continue to hope.
Be Prepared, Be Lucky
Sajjad A. Gulamali
IT Specialist (FSN)
Ten minutes before the attack, I was in the embassy basement computer training room fixing some computers. I was getting them ready for an in-house training to be conducted by a local vendor the following week. I managed to fix the problem more quickly than expected, so I left the basement and headed back to my office.
Minutes later, after checking email and finalizing plans for my trip to the regional Africa Bureau systems conference the following week, I heard a loud noise that scared me. In my office dozens of monitors kept on the shelf fell down and shattered. Scared and confused, I reached for my office door, but it was already ripped off. I saw my office co-worker lying on the floor.
My office was just a few meters away from the most serious damage caused by the explosion. On entering the corridor and going toward the stairs, I saw that the whole staircase was blocked, with no way to exit. I remembered the fire drill we had had a week earlier, and I screamed at the top of my voice, “Let us use the emergency exit!”
As I went through the emergency exit and down the stairs, I saw blood everywhere, and I kept praying hard. In less than 10 minutes, I exited the building to glimpse the devastation caused by the explosion. I was not yet aware that I had been injured, with cuts on my forehead and elbow.
Still not knowing what happened, I was whisked into a pickup truck that was taking the injured to the hospital. As I sat inside, I saw a colleague from the finance department whose eyes were injured very badly. I gave him my seat and jumped to the back of the truck.
There was chaos at Muhimbili National Hospital, where all the injured were taken. I heard people saying that there had been a bombing at the embassy. I saw a few of my colleagues at the hospital, but it seemed we all were on our separate courses. I finally screamed at the nurse that my wounds were not taken care of; then someone came to look at me, cleaned my wounds and told me to wait for stitches. I told them I would go to another hospital for those.
As I sat there, I knew the next step was to inform my family of my whereabouts. A good Samaritan at the hospital offered me his cell phone, which was very new technology in those days. I called my aunt to tell her what had happened, but she already knew and told me that my sister and her husband were on their way to the embassy to look for me.
With my cuts still bleeding, I was wandering around the hospital thinking about what to do. Then I saw my sister and her husband appear at the hospital. They said they came there by chance, as all roads to the embassy were shut down and they were directed toward the hospital, so decided to just check. Lucky for me, I was united with my family.
The next step was to go to another hospital and get my wound stitched. At around 1500 hours (approximately four hours after the explosion) I reached home only to realize that my clothes were all stained with blood from my wound.
I believe that other than all the coincidences of the day, the prayers of my mother may have saved my life. My mother is a very spiritual person who believes in the power of prayer. On hearing the explosion some 10 kilometers away and the news that the embassy had been bombed, she began to pray for me.
I was so lucky to be united with my family within hours of the explosion. Had it not been for the prayers, I would definitely be writing this story differently. Two days after the bombing, I was back at work to salvage IT items from the bombed building that could be used to set up the temporary office.
My family’s support was superb from that day until my last day working for the embassy on June 21, 2017, when I decided to use my special immigrant visa to emigrate to the United States. I am currently a proud resident of Austin, Texas.
Life immediately after the bombing was very frightful. Having to go to work where I almost lost my life was daunting. Adding to the misery was going to work in a temporary building, where a desk and a chair was your whole office. And seeing military police day in and day out was taking a toll on me.
However, with time off and reflection on what could have gone wrong, I always kept positive. But it was very hard to remove the memories of that dreadful Friday morning. There has never been a single Friday that I do not remember that day and thank the Almighty Lord for giving me another chance to live.
One major life-changing decision that helped me to return to normal life was my decision to get married. I tied the knot with one of the world’s most amazing people, my wife, 13 months after the embassy bombing. My wife has been a great support during the ups and downs of daily life as I recovered from the bombing.
Given what I have learned, I would like to pass on the following advice for those who may become survivors and helpers in the future. As a former Scout, I believe in the motto “Be Prepared.” The embassy bombing took me by surprise, but by being prepared for the worst-case scenario and taking my fire drills seriously, I was able to remember the emergency exit in a few seconds. I would always encourage you to take your fire drills and emergency preparedness seriously; it could save your life.
Though it has taken so many years to overcome as a survivor, I truly believe meditation and prayers can overcome the most difficult challenges.
The new American embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was completed in January 2003. The design and construction of the embassy incorporated the best safety technology available at the time to ensure the security of embassy personnel.
Department of State / Elizabeth Gill Lui
Carry Your Radio
FS Family Member
I was at the office of my internet business in Dar es Salaam, about a mile from the embassy. Around 10:30 a.m., our building leaped. Had someone just slapped all the windows? I called my wife, USAID FSO Diana Putman, at her office; she, too, had felt it. But what was it? Moments later one of my staff lunged into my office: “Your embassy was bombed.” Grabbing my security radio, I pinched a car from a friend downstairs and bolted, waving my dip passport to get me past the police barricades restricting traffic.
Vehicles smoldered outside of the embassy, where the bomb had ripped off the front of an annex. Sticky with diesel fuel and blood, and sprinkled with an emerald layer of shredded leaves, the street was unusually bright. Late morning sun poured through mangled trees, their foliage gone. My first thought was that the management officer was probably dead; his third-floor office was ripped in half.
Embassy staff had started to make sense of the shattered compound, assessing and responding. Asked to locate the wounded CLO and the officer escorting her in search of medical care, I threaded my way through traffic to the main hospital.
Muhimbili Hospital was churning with people and wails of grief. I pushed through the crowds, located the hospital director and explained my mission. He had no idea where the Americans were—every surgical theater held casualties. “OK,” I asked, “can I gown and go in?” The director assented.
Surgeons were doing everything they could to save the Tanzanians under their care, but it was clear that they would dispense a lot more grief. A doctor exhibited a metal chunk he had extracted from a victim; it looked like the bottom of a compressed gas cylinder. He handed me the pound of evidence, still warm and bloody, in a thin plastic shopping bag.
I traversed the hospital complex until I bumped into the escorting officer. She guided me upstairs to the ophthalmology ward. The chief said that the CLO required immediate surgery to stabilize a wound to her eye. She was lucky—her thick plastic eyeglasses gave some protection against the concrete fragment that slammed into her face, and a deep gouge in one of the lenses proved it.
With surgery underway, I roamed the hospital, searching for more Americans. The Peace Corps nurse, Edith Mpangala, had arrived, and together we returned to triage and visited the registrar’s office. Among the victims, it appeared that the CLO was the only American citizen.
In the halls we encountered another American, Susan Hirsch. “I’m looking for my husband,” she explained. Susan was in the chancery cashing a check while her Kenyan husband waited outside. Edith and I both realized that this story was not going to have a happy ending; she stayed with Susan, and I returned to the ophthalmology department. The surgeon had stabilized the CLO’s eye. Now we had to medevac her.
The mobile phone network was unreliable; call completion rates plummeted as everyone tried to check on loved ones. Fortunately, the IPO had sprinted to activate the embassy’s backup radio network, so we had some comms. I began coordinating the hospital component of the medevac. Venturing to the parking lot for better radio reception, I saw Susan sitting on a low, crumbling concrete curb, cradling her head while calmly talking on her mobile phone. “Jamal amekufa bom.” She was explaining to her Mombasa family that the bomb had killed her husband, their son.
By late afternoon, the medevac team Land Rover rolled onto the hospital compound. We gently moved the CLO to the airport, where she had 10 minutes alone with her husband, the Marine Security Guard detachment commander, before boarding. Waiting for wheels up, we watched evening CNN reports of the bombing in the city where we lived and worked—weird.
On Saturday morning, at the emergency response meeting convened by the embassy, I volunteered to assist the FBI. Having started two businesses in Dar, I had a good head for how to get things done and lots of contacts. The first FBI agent flew in from Cairo, and we scurried to find lodging for the team of 50+ agents arriving the next day.
I ultimately took time off from my company to help the FBI get in gear, and was astonished months later to receive a thoughtful commendation from them.
It sounds banal, but the bombing showed how fragile life is. One forgets.
We remain vigilant, wary of flashy hotels and restaurants in foreign lands. Dar was a soft target, as are many other locales. I flipped one morning in Nairobi, years after the bombing in Dar, when I saw a pickup truck delivering gas cylinders to the International School—the Dar bomb was engineered from shaved TNT stuffed into industrial gas cylinders.
No matter how pissed off we may be with each other, my wife and I try to remind ourselves daily how much we love each other. Mostly we succeed.
My advice? Carry your radio. Without comms, medevacing a wounded colleague would have been tough. Mobile phone networks saturate in emergencies, or get destroyed. Though having a radio slung on my ass scales somewhere between silly and pretentious, when bad things happen I’ll be the smartest guy in the room. And maybe save someone else.
Learning from Experience
Sherry Zalika Sykes
USAID/Tanzania Private Sector Development Team Lead (locally hired American)
The morning of Aug. 7, 1998, began like any other day, but would end with immense sadness and a lesson about our multitiered community. I was in my office at USAID, packing my briefcase for a meeting that I was due to attend at the embassy, when I felt and heard a blast and could see a large plume of smoke from my office window. I immediately thought that something I had feared would happen had occurred: someone smoking near the embassy’s gas tanks had ignited them.
Someone shouted through my door to turn on my radio. Over the airwaves, I heard an announcement that American installations were under attack in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and possibly other locations in East Africa. My immediate thought was that I needed to get my daughters from their high school that was located directly across the Selander Bridge from the embassy— just hundreds of meters away. They were the only American children in their Islamic school. My daughters were broadly welcomed; however, there still existed an element that resented their presence. Due to the tenor of the radio broadcasts, I feared for their safety at school.
Several bloodied and injured Americans appeared in the USAID offices, and “all Americans” were called into our largest conference room. At the door of the conference room, another locally engaged American colleague and I were told, “Not you.” You see, I was not an FSN. I was not a direct-hire officer; I was a locally engaged American employee. The meeting, I was told, was meant only for direct-hire and American U.S. Personal Services Contractors (Americans on contract sent by Washington to post), so I waited outside with other locally engaged staff. It mattered not that I had already passed the Foreign Service Officer’s Test and one week later was due to take the oral exam. It did not matter that I was the lead for the USAID Private Sector Development team. It stung, but I understood.
I waited, and when the direct-hire personnel emerged, I was told that all “Americans” would be going via convoy to the alternate command center on the other side of the bridge beyond the now-destroyed embassy. I sought to join that convoy to get to my children because, at that time, it was the only direct route from the USAID building. Due to my hiring status, I was denied participation in that convoy.
My family and I have never forgotten that the bombing affected a much wider circle than the embassy itself. —Sherry Zalika Sykes
I was extremely angry. This, I did not understand. I thought, “Why are the lives of my American children any less precious than the lives of the children of direct hires—who would be accounted for in the crisis?!” I had to fight my way past police blockades (using my accent, language skills and family name) to get to my children, and then across the otherwise closed bridge, past the embassy carnage and then home—all without security assistance.
Over the next six days, I learned with great sadness from the news reports that a female security guard I had become friendly with had died, but I never received notice of that from the embassy or USAID. I understood that everyone was in crisis mode, and my anger subsided as I prepared to leave for the United States. I arrived in Chicago and took the oral exam exactly one week after the bombing. To my absolute delight, I passed the exams to join the Foreign Service! But the bombing had changed me. I made the decision that rather than join as an economic officer as I had previously determined, I would join as a management officer. I felt that my experience during that crisis gave me a perspective on caring for all employees, on the value of security and on preparedness.
My family and I have never forgotten that the bombing affected a much wider circle than the embassy itself. At my daughters’ school, all things made of glass exploded—lab equipment, computer monitors, the few windows that existed, etc. While no one was badly injured, everyone was traumatized. Children were still moaning and crying when I arrived. Our family was aware of the effects of the bombing on all parties and felt that the U.S. direct-hire officers were unaware of the trauma experienced by other families. And the lack of communication left the impression that they didn’t care.
My daughters witnessed how their mother was excluded from information and from support in the aftermath. Now both of my daughters are professionals in the international health sector. Like me, they learned from the bombing to pay particular attention to how policies and practices impact all staff—local and expatriate alike.
After a long and arduous clearance process, my family and I joined the 95th A-100 class. We have taken pride in being a part of a government service that learns from our experiences, making policy and culture changes along the way to improve our crisis response.
Take Time to Reflect and Breathe
Vella G. Mbenna
Support Communications Officer
I was at my desk in the Communications Center. I was expecting a call, but thought I could run a few errands before my operator processed the call and before the new American colleague I needed to train returned. However, just seconds after exiting the office, I thought I heard a phone ringing, so I returned to my desk. It was indeed the call I was expecting from South Africa. Less than a minute into the conversation, I heard a blast and saw the wall come toward me. My chair, with me in it, was blown across the floor, slamming into a rack of communication equipment. I was knocked out.
When I came to, I heard the alarm wailing: “Please evacuate the building, this is not a drill.” Instead of evacuating, I immediately went to check on my colleagues and to send a message on the telegraphic equipment to Washington, asking them to stop transmitting telegrams to post because something bad had just happened. I then sanitized the Communications Center as much as I could before heading out to see what had happened.
The Aug. 7 bombings continue to affect me, my family and my colleagues in many ways.
Sometimes when I am in a crowd, I become nervous and feel the need to leave, sometimes abruptly. I often decline to attend work and personal events because I fear being in a crowd. I have a compulsion to always say goodbye to family and friends, never taking it for granted that I will return.
Because I forgot for days to call the boarding school where my son (and niece) were to let them know I was fine, I carry a heavy burden: my son still feels that I did not care about what he was experiencing not knowing if I was dead or alive. I became burnt out early in my career because I worked extremely long hours, even as a high-level manager, ensuring and double-checking on a daily basis that the embassy was communications-ready in the event something like the bombing happened again.
What helped? Being alone a lot. Thinking of the good I did that day for my Tanzanian colleagues, my American colleagues and my country. Talking about it with anyone who cared to listen. Writing about what happened and how I felt. Returning to the old embassy site year after year on the anniversary of the bombing. Keeping in touch with Foreign Service Nationals from the embassy and letting them know how thankful and grateful I was then and still am for them.
Being kind to everyone I meet, no matter how different they are from me, has also helped. So has praying a lot and becoming stronger in my faith. Being protective and worried about my son (at the expense of pushing him further away from me), and now my grandkids, helps too.
For survivors: Do not ask “Why me?” Just be thankful. Don’t try to forget—let it play out in words and any other expressive manner. Call home to family and friends in the States at the first opportunity. Talk to others; give lots of hugs to other survivors. If you are hurt, ask to leave. You may do further harm to yourself by staying. Do not try to be a superhero and put yourself in danger or work until you drop. Take time to reflect and breathe. Pitch in and help, even if you are not an expert in that area. You would be amazed at what you can do to help in a stressful situation.
For helpers: Do not come with an “I am here to take over or save the day” attitude. Let those still on the ground be a part of helping. Listen to survivors and do not give unsolicited advice. Never criticize or remark on how a survivor is coping unless it is a medical condition—and then you should tell a medical professional in private. Be patient and understanding.
Thunder on a Clear Day
Evitta F. Kwimbere
Administrative Section (FSN)
I woke up early in the morning saying “Thank God it’s Friday,” took my breakfast, made sure the kids were okay, kissed them goodbye and left for work. It was a bright, sunny day. I had felt an uneasiness that week, but I ignored the feeling. I recall telling my daughter the previous night, “I don’t know, but I really don’t feel like going to work this week.” And she said, “Well, you could always take a day off.”
Once I got to work, I prepared my to-do list for the day. I noticed that several American employees’ passports required an extension of re-entry and exemption permits, and I made that a priority. After collecting the diplomatic notes and required signatures, I prepared my envelopes for a motor pool driver to dispatch to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. I delivered the envelopes with the register book to the dispatcher on the ground floor for drop off at the ministry.
On my way back to the office, I remembered that I had booked an international call with the switchboard. I had to rush not to miss the call, passing near the gate (where the bomb went off ). I stopped at the strong door on the first floor, waiting for the Marine Security Guard to open it. I heard a big blast, and the strong door hit me on my left side. I hit the floor so hard I fainted.
When I came to, it took me a few seconds to figure out what exactly had happened and where I was. My colleague, Tina— she was then eight months pregnant—helped me to stand up and informed me that there had been a bomb blast. I was too dazed, but I just followed everyone to the safe zone as directed. I smelled blood and felt blood dripping from my face. My batik jumpsuit had spots of blood all over. I realized I had big cuts on my face, on my head and on my left arm. My chest was heavy, and it was painful to breathe in and out.
When we reached the safe place, we heard another blast outside of the compound. My colleague Tibruss told me, “No, this is not a place to stay, let’s get out of this place.” He found a ladder lying in the grass, put it against the wall and helped me to climb the ladder, pushing me from the back with the help of another colleague, Michael. I had severe pain in my ribs on my left side, which prevented me from bending or moving fast. Finally, I jumped from the ladder outside the wall of the compound. A good Samaritan stopped and drove us straight to Muhimbili National Hospital.
At the hospital, it was mayhem. They, too, heard the blast— in fact, I was told later that it was heard at quite a distance from the area. My husband later told me he thought someone had banged at his office window, and his office was several kilometers away. My daughter at home said she was surprised to hear thunder on such a clear day.
I was received at reception and they laid me on a bed. I felt the pain in my chest and left side worsen.
My husband and other family members were searching for me from one hospital to another. My brother-in-law found me at Muhimbili in the afternoon and informed my husband and the rest of the family. I faintly remember seeing my husband and children in the hospital, with shock-stricken faces. To be honest, I thought I was going to die, and my heart ached when I saw them and remembered my youngest, who was then 3.
That same night I was transferred to the private ward, which specialized in orthopedics, to have X-rays and other check-ups. The medical report showed that I had multiple broken ribs— six, all in the left hemithorax; lung contusion; moderate head injury; left shoulder joint sprain and multiple cuts on my face, forearm and arm. I was admitted for a little over two weeks. I was in a wheelchair during the first two weeks and in bed for two months.
My husband and daughter came to the hospital every day to bring me homemade food. My husband left my daughter to give me company and came to fetch her at night; the hospital, for some reason, allowed her to stay during non-visiting hours. I remember she used to help the nurses give me a cloth bath. The staff were very empathetic and nice to me, as well.
A lot of people visited me at the hospital. My colleagues, including Foreign Service officers, government officials, church leaders and even people from the street whom I didn’t know, all came to give me their well wishes.
In Tanzania it was the first time a terrorist attack involved a bomb of that scale. Everyone had a different story about that day. My colleague Valerie told me that I was very lucky I was not at my desk, because the wall behind my desk fell right on it, and I probably would not have survived.
I felt extremely lucky to have survived that day. In fact, a whole series of events saved me, starting with the timing—from the Marine’s delay in opening that door, and the bomb blasting near the gate after I passed, to running for the distant phone call. Had I not been rushing, I would not be writing this note. I thank the Heavens to this day.
My heart goes out to those who lost their family members, five guards who lost their lives protecting us, two truck drivers, one cleaner, one gardener and two other public visitors. Nothing can replace a life; it is too precious, priceless.
Ten days after the attack Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Dar es Salaam to meet all the injured victims at the hospital. I was pleasantly surprised—this made me feel that the American government valued its employees regardless of their locality. To this day, I respect the American government for its utmost support and care.
I have valued life more from that day. I appreciate the value of having a family and friends and never take them for granted.
To those who lost loved ones in this event or any other terrorist attack, my prayers are with you.