Early victims of al-Qaida feeling forgotten in Kenya

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March 26, 2006|By SCOTT CALVERT | SCOTT CALVERT,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

NAIROBI, Kenya -- The last thing Richard Wamarite saw with two eyes was a truck moving Aug. 7, 1998, toward the American Embassy here in the Kenyan capital. Then an explosion rocked the intersection where the bus he was riding happened to be, and dusk fell over his world.

To many Americans, the embassy attacks here and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, have become footnotes in a larger war against terrorism. But in Nairobi, the grassy memorial park created on the site of the ruined embassy is a constant reminder of the blast that killed more than 200 people and injured more than 4,000 - and that remains the source of protests against the United States.

Last year, Wamarite and 13 other bombing victims camped for 3 1/2 months in the park, demanding compensation from the American government.

The truck bomb killed 44 embassy staff members and about 170 Kenyans with no links to the embassy; the bombings that occurred minutes apart here and in Dar es Salaam were al-Qaida's first major attacks against Americans.

Many of the injured and dead in Nairobi were victims of happenstance - working in a nearby office building, taking shorthand classes at a secretarial college or, like Wamarite, stuck in traffic on a bus. The explosion left him blind in one eye and with limited sight in the other.

"My life was spoiled," Wamarite, 53, says in the living room of his small home in Ongata Rongai, a quiet community 15 miles from downtown Nairobi.

A former mechanic, he no longer sees well enough to work on cars, and he says he cannot find a job to provide for his family of 10. His income has fallen from $215 a month to about $85, from raising chickens. His wife, Mary, earns a pittance doing laundry.

The long protest to pressure the American government began in July. It lasted until late October, when park administrator Janet Adolwa persuaded the protesters to stop sleeping under plastic sheets in cold rain and to return to their families.

"I personally talked them out after agonizing, reasoning, empathizing, trying to make them get the sense that the American government is not going to pay anything else," she recalls. "I told them, `You are suffering, but you're going to die here.' Nobody was going to come to their aid."

Adolwa said the size of their demands did not help their cause: Each of the 14 wanted $285,000.

The U.S. government offered sympathy while making clear it would provide no assistance beyond the $42.3 million it had spent by the end of 2002.. In 2003, the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled that Kenyans lacked the right to sue the American government for additional compensation.

Geoffrey Manguriu, a civil engineer, lost his 20-year-old daughter, Joyce, who had planned to study in the United States. On the day of the bombing she was learning shorthand in a secretarial college building that collapsed.

"She was not only my daughter but a very, very close friend of mine, so that any time that I came late she'd always be sitting there waiting for me," her father testified in a New York courtroom during the 2001 criminal trial of four bombing suspects, who were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Manguriu, 54, says he feels the United States owes him compensation for his unending anguish.

For many Kenyans, the bombing was a frightening but isolated event, despite two subsequent attacks linked to al-Qaida: On Nov. 28, 2002, 10 Kenyans and three Israelis were killed by suicide bombers at a hotel near the port city of Mombassa, and two shoulder-fired missiles were launched at an Israeli jet taking off from Mombassa with 261 passengers.

Despite the periodic protests by bomb victims, public attention is focused instead on a worsening drought and, in recent weeks, on a government corruption scandal.

Wamarite had no connection to the embassy. On Aug. 7, 1998, he was on leave from his job at Amazon Motors, on his way to see his elderly parents. At 10:37 a.m. he was sitting by the window of a bus stuck in a traffic jam outside the embassy at Moi and Haile Selassie avenues.

He felt the bus lifted off the road by the force of the explosion - and then nothing. For two days he lay unconscious in a hospital. Awakening, he saw a doctor. "When I asked him what happened to my face, he said my eyes are already spoiled."

Glass was embedded in them. After 10 days he was transferred to a second hospital, where specialists operated but managed to restore only partial sight in his left eye. He says he cannot easily read or see much beyond 10 feet.

Wamarite says he received a $2,500 payout from his employer and a $285 loan from the United Disabled Persons of Kenya. The American government paid for his initial medical care, he said, but the Kenyan government offered no assistance.

In the binder where he keeps his documents, he has a letter indicating the United States would pay school fees for victims' children in certain cases. He said he did not get any help with these fees and that two of his children had to drop out of high school.

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