After the bomb

International | U.S. and Kenyan officials settle in for a long recovery for traumatized victims of Nairobi's 1998 embassy blast

Issue: "Is there no tomorrow?," Aug. 7, 1999

It has been one year since two bomb blasts at American embassies in Africa rocked the cloistered diplomatic community. Attacks at U.S. compounds in Kenya and Tanzania came 20 years after the only other successful terrorist hit against American diplomats, when embassy personnel were taken hostage in Iran. Ironically, they occurred on friendly territory, where government-issue concrete barriers and metal detectors had seemed like overkill.

In Kenya, the terrorists killed 12 Americans, including U.S. Consul General Julian Bartley. Over 200 Kenyans also died-most were embassy employees; some were visitors applying for visas or on other business. U.S. officials are taking steps to mend their losses and reconsider embassy security. Damage on the streets in Nairobi-and to the Kenyan psyche-is harder to eradicate.

It doesn't take a forensics expert to understand why Kenyans have been deeply affected by the attack. The U.S. embassy was located in the heart of downtown Nairobi, near its overworked bus station, several changing points for matatus (the outsized vans most commuters rely on for cheap transportation), and an always-busy flea market.

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The Aug. 7 bombing occurred in two stages. A preliminary and perhaps unintended detonation at the embassy's rear entrance brought many office workers to their windows. The larger blast followed seconds later, bringing down the front of the embassy and completely destroying an office building next door. It shattered glass throughout the downtown area and caught people in the streets, as well as office workers brought to their windows by the first boom, in a torrent of projectile-like glass and rubble.

Even a year later, glass shards twinkle along dusty downtown sidewalks. Corner vendors have scavenged for larger pieces of plate glass and use them as paperweights to hold daily tabloids from a stiff breeze. In some buildings blown-out window glass has yet to be replaced. The embassy building stands deserted and gaping. Next door, the Ufundi Cooperative Society has been leveled, its rubble sometimes shifting and creaking behind a fixed barrier.

Nearby businesses were also destroyed. A computer store adjacent to the bombed area was typical; blowing glass and debris destroyed all its merchandise, and the owner lacked both insurance and the capital needed to start over.

When terrorists trucked their bombs into Nairobi's downtown area, this was a country with no emergency-preparedness plan. Hospitals ran out of sutures and other essentials within hours of treating victims. For many patients, short supplies translated into a longer recovery. Infrastructure problems-poor roads, inadequate phone service, and other unreliable utilities-have delayed a comeback.

U.S. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, hands bandaged and face pocked from glass and shrapnel-like wounds, was an emblem of the injured. These proved superficial, however, compared to what many Kenyan bystanders endured. Medical workers estimate the number of injured survivors to be between 5,000 and 7,000. Hundreds sustained eye injuries and blindness. In addition to lengthy therapy, for many, rounds of painful reconstructive operations or plastic surgery are how they spent the last year.

"People in general don't know how to treat the disabled," said Rhonda Adams, a blind therapist from Texas. "The biggest frustration for me is that I know what blind people can do. They don't have to be helpless."

Miss Adams is a certified orientation and mobility specialist who worked with blind children in Texas for 10 years. She arrived in Nairobi just weeks after the bombing to help its blinded victims, using a variety of therapy techniques to regain gross motor skills, cope with corrective surgery, or simply organize the space around them to make living with their disability easier. "I help people figure out where they are," she said.

Ironically, her specialty came into being after World War II as a system for training veterans permanently wounded by shrapnel. Miss Adams says her specialty is "a dime a dozen" in the United States. In Kenya at the time of the bombing, only three other people were doing this kind of therapy-for over 200,000 blind Kenyans. Miss Adams arrived in Kenya under the supervision of the Southern Baptists' International Mission Board. Since the first of the year, she has worked with over 150 blinded victims.

Their needs are varied. One required help learning to care for a baby without her sight. Others live in slum areas with unpaved streets, corrugated buildings, and open sewers-all posing unique hazards for the sightless. Most have to relearn how to navigate public transportation, crowded sidewalks (with no sloping curbs or other concessions), and unreliable traffic signals. The country also lacks established aids for the blind, such as an electronic Braille system, libraries for the blind (available in every state in the United States), and even an ample supply of walking canes.


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