The 1998 US Embassy bomb blast as retold by journalist Wanja Gathu [Part 1]

Something crazy has happened …you need to go back!

Pulse I Witnessed It: 1998 US Embassy Bomb Blast with journalist Wanja Gathu

On August 7, 1998 Wanja wa Gathu was only 22 years old and newly employed. While studying at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC), Gathu had always wanted to work at a newspaper that mainly focuses on hard news but all the opportunities that had come her way involved feature writing, in her words “safe and easy to do.”

However, at the Star Newspaper she had found her happy place. Her editor at the time, the late Magayu Magayu, gave her the big break that she had always wanted. For the first time in her career, Gathu would be sent to cover political rallies, conflicts and protests, something only men would cover.

The morning of August 7, 1998, had dawned as another work-day Friday. Everyone in the newsroom was anxiously waiting for the weekend even though there was still much work to do. After making her way to the office, Gathu quickly dashed into the conference room for their regular editorial meetings.

At the editorial meetings, the main focus as is the case in many Kenyan newsrooms was politics. Kenyans had just come out of a heated General Election in 1997 in which the opposition leader at the time, Mwai Kibaki had disputed the results.

Moi had been gazetted as the duly elected president on January 5, 1998, but on January 22 Kibaki filed the petition challenging validity of the results which was eventually dismissed by Justices Emmanuel O’Kubasu, Mbogholi Msagha and Moijo ole Keiwua.

However, the battle had moved away from the courts to the streets. Opposition leaders were at the forefront trying to garner support from the masses through numerous press conferences. At the editorial meeting, Magayu Magayu had assigned Gathu to cover a press conference hosted at the Continental House along Mama Ngina Street, Nairobi.

At around 11 a.m. Gathu with two of her colleagues made their way down the stairs at Cannon House when she heard a loud bang. The shockwave that followed was so strong that it threw her to the floor. To put it into perspective, Cannon House was 700 meters away from the scene of the blast, that’s how serious the shockwave was.

Journalistic Instincts

Amidst the panic and turmoil, Gathu rushed out of the building driven by her journalistic instincts as she was interested in knowing what exactly had happened. In a state of confusion and shock she started running along Haile Selassie Avenue where she was met by a mushroom cloud of dust and smoke.

One of her colleagues, noticing that she was in a state of disarray, quickly held her and dragged her back to the office. “Where are you going? Something crazy has happened…Ufundi house is at the ground…you need to go back,” insisted her colleague.

After the dust had settled, Magayu briefed her of what had happened. Reports coming in indicated that a bomb had been detonated at the United States of America embassy located next to Ufundi Building.

“I need you to go and write in great detail what exactly you see,” said the late Magayu. Along the way, she was thinking of what exactly she was going to write. However, what she saw at the scene of the blast was far from what she had imagined.

“First thing I saw was rubble spread across the street following the crumbling of Ufundi house. I quickly thought about how huge the number of casualties was going to be. When I looked around once more, I saw a bus completely damaged on one side with body parts scattered all over and people hanging through the windows,” described Gathu.

First name, last name, quote

Despite the desire to scream she gently began asking people where they had been, what they had seen. She wrote it all down. First name, last name, quote. Whatever else she could get out of them without pushing them too far. “I realize now I was coping the only way I knew how, hiding behind a pen and pad and aware that if I ever got out of there, I’d need to produce some copy.”

Something that she witnessed that still bothers her till today was the sight of two guys in black trench coats briskly walking away from the scene. At the time, she thought they were police officers as they had walkie-talkies in hand but after a few years of reflection, she believes they were the terrorists.

“It bothered me for years, I wish I had a camera to film what was going on so that I could capture the faces of the people I saw. Normally, when something tragic happens like a blast people rush towards the scene but those two guys were walking away. I kept asking myself why.”

As first responders started arriving at the scene, Gathu began piecing up her story bit by bit. At first, there was no idea of how many people had died but, in her head, she knew the number was unimaginable. She was able to interview survivors, listen to detailed reports from police officers as well as help in the rescue of innocent Kenyans.

After a long day’s work, she was relieved to be heading back home but despite the exhaustion, Gathu couldn’t sleep. The images of bodies blown up into pieces, blood flowing across the street as well as sounds of screams kept her up all night. She asked herself whether she should return to work the following day to which the unanimous was, yes.

A deserted Nairobi city

The next morning, she was at it again. However, this time round the bomb blast was completely sealed off by the police officers. She milled about what seemed like a deserted city, with empty sidewalks, closed stores and rerouted cars.

She went back to the office to write. At some point in the day, Magayu Magayu was asking about me. She stood up and poked my head around the corner. He looked normal, like nothing major had happened the previous day. No hint of emotion whatsoever. He noticed that I looked jaded, then folded me into a long embrace.

August 7 changed me. The fearless woman who would walk into any situation and just start talking to people became a little less brave. At some point, going into a lift was scary for me. The thought of being trapped in a cubicle was affecting me mentally, she says.

To date, I still fear being in overcrowded places for too long. Most people don’t understand how tough it is to be a journalist, what we see and hear gets entrenched into our memory and it’s always hard to let those bad moments go,” explained Gathu.

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