COMMUNITY: Support flows in to help Kenyans rebuild after Nairobi bombing

Filed for Cyber Times– Kenya, August 24, 1998
Patrick Craddock, then stationed in Nairobi, Kenya.

It took me a week to be able to sit down at the computer and write about the bombing in Nairobi that killed nearly 250 people. I was numbed with shock after the bomb blast, although I was four blocks away from the explosion and didn’t suffer even a scratch.

At the time I was getting ready to drive away from the Jomo Kenyatta Centre – an impressive building with a large square, fountains and numerous flagpoles. It was difficult as the scene was crowded with hundreds of children dressed in national costumes. They were in the city to sing and dance for a school music festival that was in full swing that morning.The children held up my car as they chatted and collected in their small colourful groups. Progress to the exit was slow. But, I owe those children a debt. I was planning to drive through the city towards my bank and close to the American Embassy. I never got there. Many people did, and would never leave it alive.

I heard the bomb blast – felt a rush of hot air, turned, saw a plume of black smoke, and then focused my attention on the thousands of children who were around me. They screamed and held on to one another. Teachers and parents tried to control the children. The rest is history.

I went home shaking and feeling an increasing attack of nausea. I turned on television and then looked outside my window at the black smoke that hung over the city. Reality and television were getting closer. Among the first images on the screen were rescuers carrying a man in a smart two piece suit. He was spread-eagled with his arms out, a shocked face and blood streaming from his chest. Four men held each of his limbs and rushed him, face down, to a small pickup truck that had been hastily turned into an ambulance. Near the van stood a woman crying, her clothes and face red with blood, her face contorted like Picasso’s Guernica painting from the Spanish Civil War. Two men and a boy were leading a blinded soldier to a waiting ambulance. He held on tightly to his gun.

A nearby bus had been blown up. Bits of bodies hung from the windows. But let me talk about the aftermath. Help flowed in from local people and the international community, it was clear that Kenya had many friends. The International Red Cross housed a few hundred metres down the road, was on the scene within minutes. British soldiers arrived to help. Construction firms brought in huge cranes to remove the shattered concrete. Israel flew in a special team of men, women and sniffer dogs to hunt for survivors. Saudi Arabia donated medical supplies. After the blast tourists with medical skills abandoned their expensive safari trips and luxury hotels and rushed to the hospitals to help the wounded. A group of visiting surgeons at a workshop in Nairobi stopped their talk, put on surgical coats and began the day and night task of stitching and operating on people.

One week later the smoke and much of the physical damage at the bomb site has been cleared. Relatives have filled up pages of the newspapers with death notices and the site of the explosion there is a pile of rubble collected by the rescue team. This is a symbolic grave stone and a small symbol of unity for the dazed nation. Dozens of wreaths of red roses are spread over the rubble. Politicians, who spend their days fighting each other, have ironed out their differences. They stand side by side with mourners saying prayers and join in the singing to honour the dead. But how long will this unity last? It is already fading.The reality of the future is starting to exert its influence. The President announced it will take at fifty billion shillings to repair the bomb damage. The opposition accepts the figure, but say this tragedy should not be an excuse for him and the government to cover up a badly managed and corrupt economy. Others accuse him of using the bomb blast as an opportunity to delay an ongoing revision of constitutional reform.

And then there are the insurance companies who say that their policies do not cover damage caused by terrorism. So who pays for the damage. As that reality hits home, some small firms are saying they might have to close their shops for good.Tourism has been hit hard. Within days, one tourist agency reported that half their customers had cancelled their holidays in Kenya. However, the unity among most of the community here is still strong. For a week they pulled and dragged at the rubble that killed their relatives and friends. They served tea to tired rescue workers. Children collected money and sold home made cakes. Small firms donated money to buy medical supplies. Strangers queued for up to six hours at the hospitals for hours to donate blood. Construction firms waived fees for the use of their lifting equipment. Doctors treated patients without charge. Dentists are doing the same. Christians, Hindus and Moslem religious organisations have all donated money for the victims. Race and religion found a common cause.

As I write this article, I stopped and listened to a local radio station. A resident was talking about sending money to friends in grief. I wondered who he meant. I listened more carefully. He was talking about Omagh in Ireland where a car bomb exploded in the local shopping area killing nearly 30 people. We are brothers and sisters with these people, he said. Nairobi is both recovering and growing in wisdom.

At the time of this writing Patrick Craddock was a senior audio producer for the University of the South Pacific’s Media Centre (Fiji) and an associate lecturer in radio journalism. He was doing audio Internet research in several African nations at the time of this article.