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Victims: Only the scars have died

An explosion. Silence. Screams. Glass. Dust. Fire. These words described Nairobi on the morning of August 7, 1998.

For a moment, the city in the sun stood still in a shadow of smoke from burning debris. Time in downtown Nairobi froze. The Ufundi Co-operative House collapsed like a house of cards. A chunk of the US Embassy building had destroyed.

The peace that Nairobi had known until that moment was no more. Yet from the confusion and panic that gripped the capital and the whole nation, arose many who survived the horrors of the bomb blast. For them, only the scars are dead. The memories have remained alive for past ten years.

Target embassies

“Every day as I look into the mirror, the past stares back at me. Each glance at a scar reminds me of the time I spent trapped under pieces of broken glass and burning furniture,” said Mrs Grace Kiuna, who survived the attack.

A day before the twin terror attacks targeting US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Grace was in a jolly mood.

Her daughter had just bought a blouse for her and she could not contain her excitement. Later that night she retired to bed in her Uthiru home promising herself that she would wear the newest garment the next day.

At Eastleigh, Mrs Cecilia Okora fell asleep going through what awaited her at the office the next day at Cooperative House. Mr Douglas Sidialo too slept expecting nothing out of the ordinary the following day.

Before she boarded a matatu from Uthiru, Grace waved goodbye to her eight- year daughter and tears welled up in her eyes.

Cecilia, too, was making her way into the city from Eastleigh. She arrived at work and started perusing her diary.

Meanwhile, Douglas had got to his office on Uhuru Highway and made his way into the city to run an errand.

All he worried about then was the traffic jam. But when he hit Haille Sellassie Avenue and Moi Avenue junction, he saw a truck in front of his car moving slower for his liking.

The pick-up truck headed towards the embassy entrance. As Douglas sat in his car waiting for the traffic to clear up, he noticed a confrontation between the embassy guards and the truck’s occupants.

Loud explosion

“ I wanted to find what was going on. So I tried to get out of the car but just as I was opening the car door, I heard two loud explosions,” said Douglas, “So I hesitated for a while thinking they were gunshots.”

At her 11th floor office, Grace was seated by a window admiring the manicure on one of her friend’s hands. She also thought the first two explosions were from gunshots and that a nearby bank was being robbed. She moved to the window to see what was happening.

Cecilia thought it was something different: “ Teachers and bank workers were on strike so I thought they were demonstrating and the bangs were as a result of teargas canisters from anti-riot police.”

Without hesitating, she ran towards the window at her 12th floor office but did not make it. A second explosion stopped her dead in her tracks.

It shattered the window she was heading towards and chunks of glass hit her on the forehead. She collapsed on impact. When she gained consciousness, she could not tell where she was.

“It was dark, I thought I had gone blind. Each time I opened my mouth to get some air, I was choked by dirt particles from burning furniture,” said Cecilia.

When she finally regained her bearing, she groped around for a way out.

Luckily, she located the stairway and started her descent to what she thought to be the path to safety. Her right hand was pressed against a bleeding wound on the head.

On the 11th floor, the impact of the explosion lifted Grace’s computer off the table, onto her face before she was thrown across the office floor. When she hit the ground, glass and debris landed on every part of her body.

She could not scream for help, a glass blade had lodged itself into her throat. A colleague who had been in the kitchen making tea, helped Grace to her feet and escort her towards the safety of the stairs.

After the explosion, Douglas’ world turned black. The image of a man running towards him was the last thing he saw. Blinded by injuries to his eyes and bleeding heavily, he got out of his car, went on his knees and prayed. After a while, he passed out and regained consciousness two days later.

The injuries he sustained left him blind. After Cecilia walked out of the building, well wishers drove her to MP Shah hospital.

For Grace, although the physical scars no longer ache, the psychological ones hurt her more.

Fellow climbers

“A simple slum of the door makes me panic. At times, even ironing becomes a problem because I fear that the iron box might explode any moment and make me relieve the horrors,” she said.

Since then, Douglas has became a fan of extreme sports. He has climbed Mt Kenya to point Lenana. Through the eyes of fellow climbers he has been to and seen the snow atop Mt Kilimanjaro.

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Originally Published” August 6, 2008

He has cycled from Cairo to Cape Town in 95 days. This month, he will be leading a team of athletes to the Paralympics games in China.

Ten years after the blast, Douglas Sidialo, Grace Kiuna and Cecilia Okora have one message to those who planned and executed the attack: we forgive you, but we have not forgotten.

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