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An Embassy Bombing: Dar Es Salaam, August 7, 1998
Friday arrives and we convene in the Chargé d’Affaires’ office. I’m at the tail end of a summer internship in the political section of U.S. Embassy Dar Es Salaam. My stint in Tanzania has been something of a homecoming, as a few years back I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in neighboring Kenya. While most of my law school classmates pass the summer in judges’ chambers and law firms, I’ve been lucky enough to knock the rust off my Kiswahili and revisit some of my old African haunts. As I sit beside the Chargé on a low divan beneath the windows, I’m distracted, I admit, looking forward to the safari I’ve been planning since I returned to East Africa. By nightfall I’ll be in an Arusha safari lodge, drinking chai as the fog rolls off the mountains. After dinner they’ll play a worn copy of Hatari! on the television above the bar and the drivers will impersonate John Wayne: “That’s not a goat, that’s a ram!”
Our Office Management Specialist says, “I didn’t like Uganda.”
She sits directly across from us, by the door, a rose-cheeked Irish woman with a touch of henna in her hair and a charming lilt in her voice. She went to Kampala for three weeks and our files and schedules got fouled up in her absence. Some evenings she and her husband invite me to their bungalow down the road for tonics on their balcony and regale me with tales from Liberia, where they once served. The first time they evacuated, they told me, everyone tried to bring pets.
“Kampala just didn’t feel right, you know?” she shudders. “Things happened there and you didn’t hear about them. They found an American girl in her hotel room cut through the middle by a panga. It wasn’t in any of the papers—”
The Chargé says, “We’re happy you’re back.”
“Oh yes, me too. It’s much better here.”
A noise too loud to process blossoms in the room like a rush of steam through a vent, then snaps back on itself and is gone. In its wake, it leaves a trembling, watery silence, like someone has cupped their hands over my ears. Alarms ring.
Did I blink? Across from me, our Office Management Specialist’s hands are raised to her eyes as if in prayer. At her feet, the tangle of the window frame, black metal and concrete. The Political Chief, my boss, and all the others seated along the wall to our right are covered in glass and blinds, the Venetian slats bent into origami forms. Gingerly they touch their faces like dental patients probing for sensation beneath a general anesthetic. The Economic Officer, stares at his arm, bleeding at the elbow. I pat the back of my head, half expecting to find my own blood. Nothing has touched me. Dust filters through in through the gap in the wall. Burning smells curl in, plastics, metal and trees. And maybe other things. Maybe hair, maybe flesh.
Someone says, “The boiler.”
Someone else, “The depot.”
I think—I know—a bomb. Around me, everyone shakes off the debris. My boss’ expression suggests he runs through a mental progression of who might target the embassy. Nothing makes sense. Dar Es Salaam is a sleepy, dusty port far from everywhere, with a minimal American footprint save our aid programs. We simply don't have enemies here. Our Economic Officer tears the sleeve of his blue cotton dress shirt for a tourniquet.
“I’m fine,” he says, picking out glass.
My boss says, “Let’s move—stay down.”
Crouched, we file out. The interior lights are off. Glass snaps beneath our feet like frozen puddles in a driveway. Our Office Management Specialist says, “I saw the window bow toward me and I thought, ‘there go my eyes.’” We find another colleague at reception, surrounded by doors lying haphazardly across the chairs and desks. Sheetrock powder fills the air.
Pop! Pop!—a noise outside—Pop pop pop!
It sounds like automatic weapons fire.
Someone says, “The building’s not safe.”
“Where’s the Chargé?”
The Chargé is missing.
“Let’s get to the stairs.”
At the washroom, the walls have collapsed around the toilet. We can hear screams from somewhere down the hall. In the political section, we find our Political-Military Officer shivering amid the debris. She’s got long blond hair and looks strikingly similar to my aunt, on the Irish side. Glass and drywall and concrete and are everywhere but for a halo around her desk. Someone reaches out to her and she quiets. Debris has buried my desk and safe. Had I been there…
My boss says, “We can’t get out this way.”
We double back through the narrow corridor. I am at the tail end, watching the line of shoulders and heads wind through the dim light and dust. Post One is empty. Bilious black smoke pours from the Consular Section. Shards of glass the length of my forearm stick in the walls, as if thrown by a carnival marksman. The alarm throbs like a migraine. We stumble to the fire exit at the rear of the building and make our way down the stairs. Outside, the morning light is bright and harsh. Others join us in the parking lot, dazed expressions like airline passengers roused by turbulence. Some are cut, clothes torn here and there.
Car horns blare incessantly somewhere near.
“The Chargé pulled the Community Liaison Officer from the rubble!”
Pop! Pop! Pop!
Someone else says, “Tires exploding.”
Another colleague stops me.
She asks, eyes full of concern, “Are you okay?”
My heart trembles. The severed tip of her nose dangles like a broken hinge. She’s not aware of the blood, or her injury. I touch her arm lightly. “I'm okay,” I say, “Please take care…” Sirens and shouts. Crowds form on the far side of the wall. Dolla dollas pull up to the curb. Someone brings a ladder. A limp body passes over the wall and disappears into the rustling foliage of the hands. We scale the rungs and make our way across the wide, sun-splashed street. The Economic Officer is standing in the street with his shredded blue shirt and a shotgun. A man waves us into the French embassy compound across the way. The windows of the French chancery are smashed and terracotta tiles lie on the gravel like shards of pottery at an ancient burial site. I find myself once more beside my boss. I say, “We need a list of the missing.”
Absently, he hands me a ballpoint.
Someone says, “Nairobi’s been hit too.”
A few hours later, I approach the chancery from the front. In the street, only the baobabs survive. Black leaves litter the ruptured pavement like confetti. A Marine in full battle gear paces in the shadows. White sheets shroud the dead.
The chancery is barely recognizable.
The wall and guard booth are gone—just rubble and rusted ribs of rebar. The motor pool fleet is crushed, pancaked, the frames of the cars and vans fused and welded together. The chassis and tank of a blue water truck lie upside down and crumpled against the base of the chancery like a scarab beetle pinned on its back. The community liaison office at the corner of the building is a black, smoldering cavern. The other wing stands disfigured. The sun louvers are cracked. Above the cafeteria, blood is splattered across the wall like abstract art, rust-colored in the light. The Economic Officer tells me, “Don’t enter through the side.”
“There’s a hand in the stairwell.”
The Information Management Officer and I retrieve a case of mobile phones and the satellite phone. We take sledgehammers to computers and the rest of the communications equipment. In the hall, the Marines feed classified files into the incinerators. Burning manila fouls the air. Afterward, we drive back to the Chargé’s on the wide, dusty street that skirts the Masasani peninsula along the harbor. The cargo ships and tankers are queued on the horizon. A man in a skull cap and white gown walks slowly on the verge. Children play with their garimotos. The ragged shadow of an Indian house crow drifts across the tarmac.
It strikes me—we’re the only ones in crisis.
The blast at our embassy in Dar Es Salaam kills twelve, mostly local guards. In Nairobi, where an adjacent tower collapses and the hospitals fill with the blinded and the maimed, the death toll is far greater—more than two hundred die, including twelve American employees. The reason given for the East Africa embassy bombings, we soon learn, is jihad. Al-Qaeda has declared war on us. This is the first most of us have heard of al-Qaeda.
Two days on, I escort several of our local staff back to the chancery to salvage what they can. They’re from the personnel department and they’ve worked at our embassy for many years. Frustration grips me as I study their faces, fraught with fatigue and shock. In a few days, I know, I’ll be back in law school, the width of two continents and an ocean away, sorting through tax law. My colleagues here in Tanzania—the diplomats and the local staff alike—will be left to try to pick up their lives and make sense of it all.
Yellow police tape sags across our path. As we step over, the ruined chancery looms before us. My companions stop abruptly and stare, rapt with disbelief at the sight of the charred walls. One murmurs, “O no, no—” My other companion rubs her temples like she’s trying to relieve pressure. Dread rekindled, they step back as if to leave.
I say, gently, “What a mess—it's like a bomb hit this place!”
They bow their heads, uncertain whether to laugh or cry.
They laugh with tears in their eyes.
For the briefest of moments: relief.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.