Thursday, August 7, 2008

The day time stood still

Nairobi. 10:40 AM, Friday August 7, 1998. First came two explosions, then the mighty sonic boom, the ground shook and the skies over a corner of the city darkened with a mushroom cloud.

As the smoke and dust cleared, tonnes of paper thrown up by the blast wafted lazily over the city, coming down in slow pirouettes that belied the force of the explosion that had sent them into the sky. By the time New York got its 9/11, Nairobi already had its August 7, a date of horror etched in the collective memory of millions of Kenyans.

When the dust had cleared 213 innocents, nearly all of them Kenyans, lay dead.

The target of the terrorist attack, the US embassy, a stout, solid, fortress by the Haile Sellasie Avenue-Moi Avenue-Kenya Railways roundabout, was still standing defiant, but a mere shell gutted into the insides. Twelve American and 31 other embassy staff, nearly all Kenyans, lost their lives. Adjacent to the embassy building, the taller 7-story Ufundi Cooperative House, not constructed to withstand bomb attacks, had crumbled to the ground. Next to it one of the Nairobi skyline’s landmarks, Cooperative Bank tower, fondly called the Bellbottom, also remained standing but it too was gutted with all the windows blown out and the innards destroyed.

A visit to the scene years later does not quite reveal the story of that dark morning. The Co-op Bank building and others in the vicinity that took the brunt of the explosion have long been restored and re-opened for business. Ground Zero, where the embassy and the Ufundi Co-op buildings once stood, has been transformed into a charming little memorial park. It radiates beauty and serenity; a place with park benches and beautiful lawns occupied by those looking for peace and solitude. Some come just to relax and contemplate the skies.

Others to find a quiet place to read a book or magazine. It provides precious space in the bustling noisy city for lovers to meet before getting back to the stress of the office. But nothing can take away the fact that the island of peace and quiet was born out of terror, the worst terrorist attack recorded in sub-Saharan Africa.

A shiny granite memorial etched with the names of all who perished makes for the centrepiece of the park.

Amidst the lovers; among those just looking for a quiet corner to meditate; in between those stealing some precious moments from the stress of work, will be others who come to mourn.

No comments: