A Miracle on Kenya's Doomsday: Reflections of a journalist

(Photo: U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, lays a wreath of flowers during the commemoration on August 7, 2018, at the Bomb Blast Memorial Site)

Some have said it was a twist of fate but I am convinced it was God’s will that ensured I would arrive late to the press conference between Kenya’s Trade Minister, Joseph Kamotho, and U.S. Ambassador, Prudence Bushnell.

Many foreigners and visitors to Kenya complain that Kenyans are notorious for their poor time-keeping habits (they jokingly say there is a difference between the "official" meeting time and, what they refer to, as "Kenyan time"). An Australian film producer who is a friend of mine and lives in Kenya calls it our "Kenyan-ness."

In most situations this can be seen as a bad habit, but on that fateful morning of Friday, August 7, 1998, my Kenyan-ness quite possibly saved my life.

The day began for me just as any other Friday. The newspaper I worked at the time did not publish on weekends, so Fridays were relaxed days for us. As the news editor, my first responsibility was to assign our reporters and photographers their duties for the day. 

I assigned Martin Wachira to be my photographer for the event. However, no matter how hard I tried, he would not get out of the newsroom. I pleaded, threatened, and even pleaded again but he would say he has forgotten this or that and had to go back to the newsroom to look for the missing item.

Survivors of the 1998 bomb attack hold candles during the commemoration ceremony on August 7, 2018 at the Bomb Blast Memorial Site (where the former United States embassy stood) in Nairobi.

Survivors of the 1998 bomb attack hold candles during the commemoration ceremony on August 7, 2018 at the Bomb Blast Memorial Site (where the former United States embassy stood) in Nairobi.

Running out of patience, I began walking towards the elevators. Our office was on the 12th floor of the Lonrho House. It was then that I bumped into my older brother, Ahmed Ben Bella, who had come to see me about a personal matter. After a short conversation, we rode together in the elevator and we stopped to say our goodbyes as we were heading different directions. That's when it happened. A loud blast that left a dusty whirlwind over the skies and in its wake.

As any good journalist would do, I pushed my brother aside and started sprinting towards the sound of where the blast was coming from. People were running franticly, not knowing what had happened. Taking one corner I ran into an elderly man who was calling out some lady’s name interspersed with mournful dirge in one of the local languages. I assumed the lady in question was the wife but since I was of no much help, I sprinted past him towards what I was certain was a big story unfolding before bye yes.

I encountered a bleeding Kamotho being carried by a bodyguard and one of his aides, the former journalist, Johnson Gakungu. I decided not to bother them. As big as this story was, it didn't seem like the appropriate time to ask questions. 

I reached the Cooperative Bank building and encountered a scene that was one of the worst a person could imagine. The edifice that had long marked the Nairobi skyline - and which Kenyans affectionately called ‘bell bottom’ house because of its design - had crumbled the ground. Bodies of passersby lay in various stages of death. The blast had ripped the clothes off of many victims. Bodies were scattered about as victims laid motionless. Robbed even of their dignity in the final moments of their lives and tragic deaths.

All sorts of rumors began to circulate. Assumptions that it was it was a terror attack (true), that more bombers might be on their way to Nairobi (false), that Tanzania had also been attacked (true) and that there was a similar attempt at State House (false).

In the middle of the chaos, I ran into the then-Permanent Secretary for Cooperative Development, Philemon Mwaisaka. A friend and church elder who will proclaim his faith to anyone who will listen, he said: Tom hii ni kazi ya shetani (which is Swahili for "Tom, this is the work of the devil.”) I couldn’t disagree with him. After all, who could be responsible for such death and destruction upon fellow human beings if not the devil himself?

On this day I saw fellow journalists put away their notebooks and cameras and join in rescue efforts. Without basic tools, many of us used bare hands to rummage through the debris in search for survivors. Some could not hold back the tears as they engaged in the gruesome task.

At one point, journalists joined members of the public in telling off the security team at the U.S. embassy. As we were busy searching for survivors, some others were not so intelligent. An American security officer cocked his gun and warned us to stay away from the embassy, claiming that the Kenyan rescuers were looters. One infuriated Kenyan responded: "If you were this hawk-eyed with the terrorists we could not be having this problem.” We shouted the poor soldier back into the interior of the ruined embassy building.

That day the city center was deserted at 2pm. When evening arrived, I sat at a corner in the former Tanager restaurant and watched as my friend, Christine Nguku of Kenya Television Network (KTN), read the news of the day. It was one of the most surreal moments in my life as a journalist and as a Kenyan. A moment that twenty years of time cannot erase.