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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 21:48 GMT 22:48 UK
US attacks spark memories in Kenya
A Kenyan at the memorial for victims of the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi
The US attacks remind Kenyans of 1998
By East Africa correspondent Andrew Harding

Mombasa wasn't looking its best. There was a dead goat outside the town hall, and piles of human faeces dumped on the main road.

The mess was the work of local council workers, who were hoping to persuade the mayor to pay them three months of overdue wages. Kenya's economy is not in good shape right now.

Kenyan at bomb memorial service in 1998
Many feel they know what America is going through
The foreign tourists heading straight from the airport to the nearby coastal resorts on the Indian Ocean probably didn't notice the stench.

But I had to tiptoe past it on my way to Ali Mahfudh Salim's garage.

I didn't have an exact address - but everyone seemed to know him and know why I wanted to find him. I wasn't the first white man to walk into this poor neighbourhood, asking about Mr Salim.

Paid cash

The garage was old, filthy and functional. One car was parked inside next to a battered welding kit.

A man was sitting at an ancient sewing machine, putting patches in a plastic seat cover. I was shown into a dark office and told to wait.

Twenty minutes later, a plump, nervous, middle-aged man with thick glasses came in. "Why do you want to see me?" he asked quietly.

"The American Embassy told me they had no more questions. I have told them everything."

This has been terrible for our family. And now this new nightmare in New York. Go to the mosque, talk to the imam. Everyone is on edge here

Faid Salim
Three years ago, two young men had walked into the same room where we were now standing, and asked Mr Salim to do a job for them. The men were polite and earnest.

They seemed to be locals and did not try to haggle over the price, but simply paid cash.

The two had arrived in a Toyota pick-up. They told Mr Salim that they wanted him to modify the car - building a low cabin on the back.

They wanted the work finished in three days. It's for a chicken farm, they explained.

Wrongly accused

Months later, Kenyan police and American FBI agents stormed into Mr Salim's garage, arrested him and his mechanics, and told them they were suspected of involvement in terrorism.

As you've probably guessed, the modified Toyota pick-up had been driven from Mombasa to the capital, Nairobi, packed with explosives, and detonated on 7 August 1998 outside the US Embassy. Over 200 people were killed.

Rescue attempts in 1998
Over 200 Kenyans died in the 1998 attack on Nairobi's US embassy
Quietly but firmly, Mr Salim told me he was reluctant to talk. He'd eventually been cleared of any wrong-doing.

But the Kenyan police had beaten and threatened him, and now his nerves were shot. He'd been hospitalised recently with high blood pressure.

His brother Faid came in. "This has been terrible for our family," he said. "And now this new nightmare in New York. Go to the mosque, talk to the imam. Everyone is on edge here."

Fear among Muslims

I walked back through the streets to Mombasa's central mosque, just as Friday prayers were coming to an end.

People stared at me, and scowled and whispered.

"Who are you?" one man demanded. "What do you want?"

I thought about leaving. I realised my presence there was like an accusing finger. A white foreigner snooping around, implicitly and unfairly linking the men now streaming out of the mosque with the terrorism in America.

Obviously I hadn't meant it like that. But a thought kept niggling me.

Some of the men involved in the Nairobi bombing had lived in and around Mombasa for quite some time. At least two of the suspected organisers in Kenya are still at large.

Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden was allegedly behind the embassy bombing in 1998
And there are unconfirmed reports that Osama Bin Laden has visited neighbouring Somalia and possibly Kenya too.

Perhaps someone in the crowd here knew something or someone important.

The imam walked through the gate and put an end to my detective fantasies.

White-haired and serene, he told me how hard it had been for Mr Salim and his family these past few years.

They would like to forget it. We all would, he said. But now people will start asking questions all over again.

I drove to the airport to get the plane back to Nairobi. Crowds of bronzed holiday-makers packed the departure lounge.

At the news stand an article caught my eye. The body of a Kenyan computer analyst had been pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Centre. Kaaria Mbaya had worked on the 105th floor.

See also:

14 Sep 01 | Africa
Kenya mourns with US
13 Sep 01 | Africa
First African deaths in US attack
07 Aug 01 | Africa
Kenya remembers bomb victims
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