Last winter, four people talked about how to bring remembrance and meaning to the anniversary of the August 7, 1998 al Qaeda bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. We each contributed what we had to offer over the spring and early summer. Shaun Dorman, editor of the Foreign Service Journal, and her team elicited stories from 40 survivors and printed them in its July/August edition using informal networks which John Lange, my counterpart in Dar es Salaam, and I had maintained over the years.
To make those stories real, Katie Speckart, archivist from the U.S. Diplomacy Center worked with her colleagues and other museums to create a public display of artifacts from both embassies, including the suit I was wearing when we were bombed. Katie’s team also brought together American, Tanzanian and Kenyan survivors to recount to an invited audience what they were accomplishing before the attacks and what helped them cope after.
The stories in the Foreign Service Journal were heroic and heartbreaking. (http://www.afsa.org/sites/default/files/julyAugust2018fsj.pdf). Victims forced by circumstance to turn into first responders, colleagues who searched through morgues and hospitals to find the missing, co-workers who staffed the phones helping frantic family members discover the whereabouts of loved ones, and many others wrote that they have felt the effects of that experience every day. Their reflections about what helped them move forward showed themes: internal and sometimes intentional change, like talking less, listening more; an acceptance of life and being alive; and the importance of communication, feedback and understanding with others – spouses, colleagues, family, and counselors.
Among the artifacts on loan for the exhibit were the Marine Security Guard logs from both embassies. They verify that not for one minute were we out of business in Dar or in Nairobi. The logs show that we kept command of our facilities, never mind the tons of TNT that blew us up. We were able to do so, John and I both recalled, because of the critical roles colleagues, passers-by and diplomatic colleagues played, especially in the early hours. I was pleased to note I could still fit into the suit.
Our former colleagues who spoke on the panels reminded me how much we demanded from and depended upon one another, and how extraordinary our accomplishments were given the level of injuries and trauma. They verified that we became family through our struggles to heal. Many of us are still burdened.
Department officials chose to mark the occasion with remarks in front of family members of the deceased, survivors, current employees and the media. Deputy Secretary Sullivan sang the praises of the Foreign Service and our colleagues overseas without reference to or accountability for his part in creating budgets and policies that gut diplomacy and make the work and wellbeing of unarmed public servants and their families far harder than necessary.
When he invited John and me to speak. I went first with anger still fresh after 20 years. I noted that 20 years ago the government of the richest nation in the world told me it did not have the resources to fix a building that did not meet the State Department’s own security requirements. The trend continues and I asked the Deputy Secretary to pledge to stop providing inadequate resources for people who now work in a far more dangerous world. (https://www.c-span.org/video/?449521-1/state-department-commemorates-20th-anniversary-1998-african-embassy-bombings)
John spoke, a group photo was taken and State Department officialdom went back to business as usual. The Nairobi and Dar communities, some of whom came from across country, then met at the Arlington Cemetery marker for the East African victims followed by a get-together with refreshments after our assembly.
What started as an idea among four people became the work of many more. Leadership does not always have to start at the top. As for the commemoration, meaning and fellowship is what we wanted and what we got, even as the hurt remains.