In the days since the blasts, my city has turned from shock to anger.
But shock is where we began. At first, the bombing attacks that killed more than 70 people last Sunday didn’t quite register. A neighbor called to tell me, “Kampala has been struck.” Struck? What does that mean? “It has been bombed.” He named two hangouts popular with expatriates and young corporate types — the Ethiopian Village restaurant and Kyadondo Rugby Club. It could have been the work of business rivals, he said, though most likely it was a terrorist group.
At the time, I wondered about the soft thuds I had heard the night before at the pub where I was having a drink. Could a sound that dull have come from bombs going off just a few streets away, wreaking havoc?
On Monday morning, reality hit us all. The front pages of all newspapers were screaming about the massacre. And they carried harrowing pictures — men and women, sprawled dead in their plastic chairs or on the ground. The chairs, most of them white, were streaked scarlet with blood. The photos in the tabloids were even more gruesome. Was that a leg? A Guinness beer bottle firmly gripped by a lifeless hand? There was a picture of two crows atop a tile roof. The caption: “Two crows fight over a chunk of flesh from a bomb victim.”
I found myself focusing on images of the faces of the dead, most of them young. One or two were middle-aged. A white man, who I later learned was an American, looked older than the rest.
One of the faces sneaked up on me. I looked closely at it, stared at the ceiling in hope of a flash of recognition. Where had I seen this face before? Then I remembered. This was the guy who worked for a couple of years at the National Book Trust of Uganda, whom I used to meet at official functions, who used to give speeches at book fairs. I remembered his name: Stephen Okiria. In the picture he looked very much alive, very real.
Over the last few days I’ve found that most everyone knows a victim. One of the most prestigious banks, Stanchart, lost employees in the blasts. The government-owned newspaper, New Vision, ran a feature on one of its own, a young man who was “friends with everyone.” A suburb where I had lived for 10 years lost two men. Mulago Hospital spilled over with the dead; it remains full of the wounded.
It didn’t take long for six people to be arrested. The police still haven’t disclosed who they are, but they say they suspect others are still on the run, and promise to track them all down. The Ugandan president declared a week of mourning, which will end on Monday.
By mid-week, there was no more talk about business rivals setting off the blasts. Al Shabaab, an extremist Islamic group from Somalia, claimed responsibility for the attack — and most Ugandans believe them. Many had heard about the Shabaab, but before this week the group’s name had sounded like nothing more than the doleful peal of a distant bell.
Wasn’t it some dreadful group that did macabre things in Somalia, like chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers to death? How did their members come to be here and why would they go after folks having fun instead of government buildings or security installations?
And most frightening: could they have recruited militants from among the Somali refugees living in Kisenyi, one of Kampala’s slums? Over the last few days, there has been a groundswell of anti-Somali sentiment and talk of reprisal. Many Somalis have barricaded themselves inside their homes for fear of attack.
The day after the bombing, my brother, a bursar at a secondary school hundreds of miles away, called. “Are you safe?” he asked.
“I’m safe,” I told him.
“We were all very worried here,” he added. “We heard that Kampala was on fire.” I told him it wasn’t, but that we were worried here too, wondering if the bombers would strike again.
We still are. The week of official mourning is almost over. The international papers have moved on to other news. But in Kampala we don’t feel that the massacre is behind us.
Toward the end of the week, in fact, I found myself staring at more pictures of carnage in the newspapers. Only these weren’t of people I had known. The tabloids ran photographs of two heads found at the bomb sites — one very definitely Somali and the other possibly Ugandan. At least one of the heads is believed to have belonged to a bomber. Both heads were taken away by the F.B.I. for further investigation.
That one of the murderers is likely dead has brought us little comfort, for it only confirmed what we have been growing to understand over the course of this horrible week: that the blasts were the work of suicide bombers. And surely there are more out there.
Now there’s nothing left for us to do but wait anxiously, while we mourn, for the next bomb to explode any time, anywhere.
Julius Ocwinyo, the author of the novels Fate of the Banished and Footprints of the Outsider.