A bomb went off roughly two minutes from my house on Sunday night during the World Cup Final. It exploded in a little Ethiopian restaurant that I walked past about an hour beforehand and 13 people were killed. An hour or so later two more bombs went off in a bar in another part of Kampala, Uganda. So far, the total death toll has reached 74.
At the time of the first blast I was in a different bar enjoying a wearily tense World Cup final along with another hundred or so people. In all streets around me there were several hundred more people all doing the same thing. Someone heard the first blast and told me and my friends that it would be wise to return home, but we thought it was probably nothing and stayed on, after all, no one could believe that something like that could happen in Kampala. It was only when the second and third bombs went off that most people started to leave.
After waiting for some friends to grab taxis home, I went with a colleague to go and see what had happened. We headed to where the first explosion had been – a southern suburb called Kabalagala, a sort of red light district and popular hangout spot. After talking our way through the police cordon we met another group of equally confused journalists. No one could understand what was going on. There was talk that al-Shabab (the dominant militant Islamist group in Somalia) had issues with Uganda over its involvement in the peacekeeping efforts in that region and had been threatening to attack Uganda. Still, no one could believe it would happen in, as a friend put it, “our little Kampala.”
After a while a truck carrying dead bodies pulled out of the restaurant. Body parts were heaped on the flatbed, uncovered heads could be seen, severed limbs and innards slipped about all over. Not what I was expecting to see that evening.
We talked to various people--dazed onlookers from across the street who had simply heard the boom and ran--and listened to the police’s platitudes to stay calm before we moved on to the site of the second blast at Rugby Club (a sports ground and popular bar).
Here the police wouldn’t let anyone near. Pictures the next day showed bodies filled with shrapnel still in their seats. A friend, who is a doctor, went in to see if he could help but said all he found were the dead. I spoke to a survivor who had returned to pick up his car who seemed completely overwhelmed. Again, he had just heard the blast and left as fast he could. He had been thrown forwards by the shock and simply crawled away. After a while he realized his back was peppered with shrapnel and soaked with blood. He couldn’t look any of us in the eye.
I spoke to some boda boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers who had been across the street. They hadn’t been able to see over the high walls but had heard the explosion and seen the smoke. After, they said, hundreds of wounded and dizzy people rushed from the front. Some were bleeding and stumbling, some even had parts of their bodies blown clean off.
Both sites had been a frenzy of activity. No one knew what to do, who had done what or how to react. I wrote a note on my phone at 1:23am that still strikes me as the general feeling, "No one expected this, not in Kampala."
We drove to Mulago Hospital--the central hospital in Uganda where most of the injured had been taken. It was about 2am when we got there and it was obvious how bad the attacks had been. Doctors and nurses were rushing all over the place, whipping off blood stained gloves and guiding bloody gurneys through the hallways. If you have never been to Mulago before, you should know that it is an overwhelming experience. It’s an underfunded, antiquated British Empire relic completely overstuffed with the dying and massively understaffed and undersupplied. The first time I came I saw two dead bodies, and that was just a normal day. There are endemic problems regarding lack of money that lead to bribery and poor service. It’s a bit of a mess, basically.
A wounded man at Mulago Hospital.
At this point I started to get warnings from various friends around town: don’t get a boda home. The police were cracking down on people moving around the city and were reported to have been harassing people in their cars. What’s more, unofficially of course, boda boda drivers had been mobilized, as sometimes happens, as a sort of clandestine police riot squad, armed with big sticks and a very violent approach.
The feeling in town today is pretty eerie. Kampala is a city that lives on the streets--the food vendors, the markets, the traffic and the bars all spill out from the buildings. Like after the city riots of last year, people are now staying at home, especially at night. Today, two days after the attacks, more people are venturing out but I’d guess, come nightfall, the same emptiness will take over the city again.