August 7, 1998 started as an ordinary day for 16-year-old Stanley Mutuma. At about 10.30am, he was seated in a matatu on Haile Selassie Road by the US embassy in Nairobi, headed to the Kenyatta International Conference Centre for the annual school drama festival. He expected to be there in 10 minutes.
But then suddenly his world exploded.
Now 38, the only thing he remembers from that day is that he woke up in hospital. It took his family a day and a half to find him in Nairobi’s Mater Hospital.
He had been blinded, a victim of the US embassy bomb blast that had been orchestrated by Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda Islamic fundamentalist cell. The same day, the group bombed the US embassy in Tanzania killing 11 people.
In Nairobi, 213 people died on impact, 176 of them Kenyans who had no legal relationship with the US embassy. About 4,000 more were injured.
Mutuma’s dream of becoming a pilot was shattered.
Two decades on
Smartly dressed in a casual T-shirt and blazer, there is little to tell Mutuma apart from any other young man. Today, he’s married with two young children and is a practicing lawyer who graudated from the University of Nairobi with a Master’s degree in issues of compensation related to global terrorism.
“Those are the people, the 176, who l am interested in representing through the firm of Nazareth M. Haysbert,” says Mutuma.
Haysbert is an American trial lawyer and managing partner of the law firm Haysbert | Moultrie LLP. He concentrates his legal practice in the areas of civil anti-terrorism litigation, class action/mass tort litigation, and global human rights. During his time in South Africa, Haysbert founded the non-profit organisation Law Students for Africa.
“At the back of my mind, l was always seeking justice,” he states. “A wrong had been done to me and others and l didn’t know how to address it.”
Studying law was an avenue towards that.
A time to heal
In the 22 years since, Mutuma has pieced his life back together. He went through counselling and major surgeries at home and abroad to try to save his sight.
His medical bills were settled by his family, well-wishers, AMREF Health and the Njonjo Commission, which was set up after the bombing by the Kenyan government and received donations from all over the world to help with support.
“The Njonjo Commission gave a few people some humanitarian assistance for medical bills, with amounts ranging between Ksh30,000 ($270) and Ksh80,000 ($717).”
Once he accepted that his sight was gone, Mutuma studied hard, and topped his exams in 2005 at the Thika School for the Blind in central Kenya.
Sporty, he is a keen cyclist and member of Huru Cycling Club. On weekends, you’ll see him cycling somewhere out of Nairobi, like as far away as Naivasha (90 km). In a recent cycling competition, he was in the top 10 out of 40 riders, most of them sighted.
“I have two bicycles,” he says. “A racing bike and a mountain bike.”
“There are a few other blind cyclists like Douglas Sidialo,”
Sidialo lost his sight in the same bombing. He is the former chairman of the 1998 Bomb Blast Association. He introduced Mutuma to cycling and to the fight for justice for victims of the 1998 bomb blast.
“I find cycling liberating and I enjoy the companionship,” continues Mutuma, sipping his cup of coffee. “I ride tandem.”
The bicycle is made for two people. A sighted person rides in front and Mutuma is at the back.
In addition, Mutuma played netball at school, with a specially designed ball fitted with sound for the players to follow.
In 2000, the US embassy bombers were arrested and handed sentences by the district court in New York, largely based on eye-witness accounts by Kenyans. The bombers were traced back to Sudan, and the US and the international community imposed sanctions on Sudan.
The American citizens were compensated — including those who lost their relatives — under the ‘Victims of Terrorism Act’. Each injured person or family of a deceased person received $10 million or more from their government.
But there was no compensation for foreign nationals like the Kenyans and Tanzanians who died or were injured in the bombing.
As investigations by the US government continued, French bank PNB Paribas was found to have flouted the law by handling Al-Qaeda money.
“The bank entered into a plea bargain with the US government to avoid sanctions. This gave the American victims of the bomb blast a second round of compensation running into billions of dollars. This time, some Kenyans, like those directly employed by the US embassy in Nairobi, got to benefit,” says Mutuma.
In 2019, US human-rights lawyer, Haysbert arrived in Nairobi to meet with potential claimants of the 1998 bombing…the families of the 176 dead and the injured.
Mutuma was invited by Sidialo to the meeting that was attended by some 25 victims.
“Haysbert told us that there is a high probability of success for the Kenyan and Tanzanian victims for compensation provided we have all our documentation which will be subject to high scrutiny by the US government.
“He wants to lobby the US Congress to pass the legislation that shall allow compensation for the Kenyan and Tanzanian victims,” says Mutuma.
Sudan now has new leaders since the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir last year.
In 2019, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who took over from al-Bashir, was in Washington to persuade the Donald Trump administration that Sudan was looking to being removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Hamdok said that Sudan would reach a settlement with families of those killed and injured in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Sudanese government has agreed to pay $335 million to the US government.
“This money is for the US citizens,which will be the third round of compensation for the 1998 victims,” says Mutuma.
He is now working with Haysbert to collect and verify evidence. “We are a victim-driven consortium,” he explains.
“No human should be treated as a lesser human,” continues the young lawyer. “We are all equal. This bombing happened on Kenyan soil, so we the victims must have justice and compensation. People’s lives have been shattered from this one incident.
“In September this year, l placed an advert in the Daily Nation and received more than 300 replies from victims of the bomb blast. It’s not an easy case,” he states. “But there is hope for justice.”
“If we win, we want to set a precedent that can be followed,” he said.