The 1998 US Embassy bombing as recounted by journalist Wanja Gathu [Part 1]



However, at the Star Newspaper, she had found what she was looking for. Her editor at the time, the late Magayu Magayu, gave her the great chance 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 risen like another Friday working day. Everyone in the newsroom was looking forward to the weekend even though there was still a lot of work to be done. After heading to the office, Gathu quickly rushed into the conference room for their regular editorial meetings.

In editorial meetings, the main emphasis, as is the case in many Kenyan newsrooms, was politics. Kenyans had just emerged from a stormy general election in 1997 whose then opposition leader Mwai Kibaki challenged the results.

Moi was officially elected president on January 5, 1998, but on January 22, Kibaki filed a petition challenging the validity of the results, which was ultimately rejected by judges Emmanuel O’Kubasu, Mbogholi Msagha and Moijo ole Keiwua.

However, the battle had shifted from the courts to the streets. Opposition leaders were at the forefront of trying to win the support of the masses through numerous press conferences. During the editorial meeting, Magayu Magayu tasked Gathu to cover a press conference held at the Continental House along Mama Ngina Street in Nairobi.

At around 11 a.m., Gathu and two of his colleagues came down the stairs of Cannon House when she heard a loud bang. The shock wave that followed was so strong that she threw it to the ground. To put it in perspective, Cannon House was 700 yards from the site of the explosion, which is the severity of the shock wave.

Amid the panic and commotion, Gathu rushed out of the building, driven by her journalistic instincts, as she wanted to know what exactly had happened. In a state of confusion and shock, she began to run along Haile Selassie Avenue where she was greeted by a mushroom-shaped cloud of dust and smoke.

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

Once the dust settled, Magayu informed him of what had happened. Reports received indicated that a bomb had exploded at the Embassy of the United States of America located next to the Ufundi building.

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

“The first thing I saw was rubble spread out in the street after Ufundi’s house collapsed. I quickly thought how huge the number of victims was going to be. When I looked around once more I saw a bus completely damaged on one side with body parts strewn all over the place and people hanging out the windows,“described Gathu.

Name, first name, quote

Despite the desire to scream, she slowly began to ask people where they had been, what they had seen. She wrote it all down. Name, first name, quote. Anything else she could get out of it without pushing them too far. “I realize now that I was doing the only way I knew how, hiding behind a pen and notepad and aware that if I ever got out of there I would have to produce a copy.

Something she witnessed that still bothers her to this day is the sight of two guys in black trench coats quickly walking away from the scene. At the time, she thought they were police officers because they had walkie-talkies in hand, but after a few years of thinking, she thinks they were the terrorists.

“It bothered me for years, I would have liked to have 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 an explosion, people rush to the scene, but these two guys were walking away. I kept wondering why.

As first responders began to arrive at the scene, Gathu began to piece together his story bit by bit. At first there was no idea 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, and help rescue innocent Kenyans.

After a long day at work, she was relieved to return home, but despite the exhaustion, Gathu could not sleep. The images of bodies exploding to pieces, the blood circulating in the street and the sounds of screaming kept her awake all night. She wondered if she should return to work the next day to which unanimity was, yes.

The next morning she would do it again. However, this time the bomb explosion was completely cordoned off by the police. She walked through what appeared to be a deserted town, with empty sidewalks, closed shops and hijacked cars.

She returned to the office to write. At one point in the day, Magayu Magayu asked me questions about myself. She stood up and put my head in the corner. He looked normal, like nothing major had happened the day before. No trace of emotion. He noticed that I looked jaded, then hugged me in a long hug.

August 7 changed me. The fearless woman who walked into any situation and just started talking to people just got a little less courageous. At one point, getting in an elevator scared me. The thought of being trapped in a cabin affected me mentally, she says.

To this day, I still worry that I will be in crowded places for too long. Most people do not understand how difficult it is to be a journalist, what we see and hear is etched in our memory and it is always difficult to let these bad times pass ”, Gathu explained.



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