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A year later, embassy attack survivors remember

Francis Ndungu gazed across the wind-swept vacant lot Saturday in Nairobi where the U.S. Embassy once stood and shuddered.

"I don't feel good. The only thing I remember is all the bodies," said Ndungu, a Red Cross volunteer who was among the thousands of bereaved, blinded and maimed who came to mark the first anniversary of the attack that killed 213 people and wounded more than 5,000.

In the frenzied moments after the bombing, Ndungu rushed from a nearby post office, dashed by guards into the darkened, heaving building and pulled the bodies of two wounded Americans from the rubble. The chest of one was splayed open.

Tears welling in his eyes and gripping his face between his hands, the 26-year-old Ndungu said he now just wants to forget. "Everything just reminds me of that day."

The two-hour ceremony marking the Aug. 7, 1998, attack included prayers, speeches from dignitaries including Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi and a moment of silence for the victims.

Wreaths and flowers were then placed on a burnished wood marker in the center of the lot, which Kenyan authorities opened for the first time for the occasion. Bystanders lingered after the ceremony, singing hymns and praying.

A nearly simultaneous blast on the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania killed 11 people and injured 86. Tanzania commemorated the bombing on Saturday with a ground-breaking ceremony for a new embassy.

"Both our nations and both our peoples were innocent victims," Michael Marine, U.S. charge d'affaires, told the Nairobi crowd of 7,000 that also included diplomats and religious and civic leaders. "They were victims of those whose real agenda is hatred and destruction."

"No matter what phraseology they try to use to cloak their deeds, the perpetrators of this despicable act are mere murderers whose only accomplishment was a slaughter of the innocents."

At a ceremony in Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pledged that "we will not rest" until the terrorists are caught.

President Clinton, in a letter read by the national security adviser, Sandy Berger, added: "Terrorists murdered these men and women and tore the hearts of those who loved them. But their violence could not and did not destroy the ideals for which their victims stood."

It was one year ago Saturday that a yellow van carrying five men, allegedly Islamic militants fighting a holy war against the United States, drove to the entrance of the embassy's underground garage and set off a bomb that shattered the embassy, demolished the nearby Ufundi Coop House and gutted the 17-story Cooperative Bank.

Seventeen people have been charged by U.S. federal prosecutors in New York in the nearly simultaneous attacks on the embassies in Nairobi and neighboring Tanzania.

All but 12 of the 213 who were killed in the Nairobi bombing were Kenyans. Tumbling concrete and shattering glass disfigured and blinded hundreds of others, leaving them unable to work and utterly dependent on others. In a country where per capita income is $295 a year, the attack has inflicted a heavy cost.

"Why choose Kenya? What is Kenya guilty of?" Moi asked during his brief remarks. Most of the victims were people "whose universe does not extend beyond Kenya's borders," he said.

With the concrete carcass of the blackened and pockmarked Cooperative Bank looming high overhead, survivors clutching faded photographs of their dead relatives and bent-over men leaning on crutches struggled to make sense of how an unremarkable workday morning became a nightmare that forever changed their lives.

Hanisa Mwilu could barely speak through her grief.

Seated in a metal folding chair with her 4-year-old daughter in her lap, Mwilu held a picture of her husband, a bank manager who was killed in the blast, and quietly wept.

"I feel very bad. I can't describe how I feel, it's so bad," she said, turning away.

Citing security concerns, the U.S. Embassy held a private ceremony for 400 Kenyan and American embassy personnel at the ambassador's residence. The observance was attended by nearly 25 relatives of the 12 Americans killed in the attack.

The U.S. government has appropriated $42.5-million for emergency services, reconstruction of damaged buildings and helping businesses replace ruined equipment and stocks.

A new U.S. Embassy is to be built on the northern edge of Nairobi in the next four years. Meanwhile, embassy personnel will soon move from one set of temporary offices to another.

A memorial garden is planned for the site of the bombed embassy.

Meanwhile, Ndungu, the Red Cross volunteer, tries to reckon with the ordeal.

After retrieving bodies from the U.S. Embassy, Ndungu took over the body count. For six days, he retrieved identification from body bags, attached toe tags and recorded names of the dead in a black-bound accountant's ledger.

The bloodstained green jacket he wore during those nearly sleepless nights still hangs in his home. Though he can't bear the smell and the memories it evokes, he's forced to wear it now in the heart of Nairobi's cold season.

"I try to stay occupied," he said. "I wish I had the power to stop this sort of thing."