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by James L. Huskey

“I counted and identified bodies in a strange déjà vu of the Tiananmen body count. It was surrealistic as colleagues came running to tell me this colleague was alive . . . or that colleague was dead. . . . “We lost more than half of our embassy. . . .”

MY FACULTY ADVISER AT UNC, history professor Michael Hunt, and I were together in Beijing in spring 1989 at the time of the Tiananmen Massacre. I was a political officer in the American Embassy there, and Michael was doing research for one of his many books at Beijing University. My wife, Joanne, and I would often go see him in the evenings and walk around the university, watching the democracy gatherings and reading the democracy posters, since BU was one of the starting points of the whole democracy movement in Beijing that spring. As it happened, I was the only American official to witness the massacre itself on the night of June 3-4. The other officers left Tiananmen Square around 10 p.m., assuming the demonstrations were over for the evening. They had happened every day for several weeks; Joanne and I went out every night to observe.

I hung around the massive one million-plus-person square watching the students and people celebrate their joy at what many thought was the imminent opening up and democratization of China. Then at around midnight came the sound of shooting on Changan Road, the vast boulevard going due west out of the square.

It was clearly military gunfire, and the masses of people ran, not away from but directly toward the gunfire. Changan was lit bright orange high into the sky as the throngs of people built bonfires trying to block the long line of tanks snaking down the street toward the square. People were shocked when they found the bullets and shells to be real, not rubber.

Jim Huskey
Jim Huskey
Jim Huskey
     In his ten years as a U.S. diplomat, career Foreign Service officer Jim Huskey has already experienced two harrowing adventures — the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and the US Embassy Nairobi bombing in 1998. Originally from Alabama, he earned a doctorate in history in 1985 at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he  worked under Michael H. Hunt, a member of American  Diplomacy’s parent board of directors.

~ Ed

We began to retreat east toward the Square before the tanks. At one point a man next to me shouted kuai dian: “faster.” I looked over at him, and a bright red circle popped on his forehead as he fell to the ground dead.

I spent the rest of the night observing the massacre, which was actually a series of machine gunnings of the demonstrators on Jianquomen Road, due east of Tiananmen Square. Every half hour or so, the soldiers would open fire on the angry demonstrators closing in on them, killing and wounding twenty to thirty people. Each time the firing started, I would run quickly to the nearest tree and wait out the gunfire, then go back out into the street and count bodies.

This was my first searing experience in the Foreign Service, which I had joined the previous year. I stayed in Beijing until I was assigned to Madras, India, in 1992, where we, enlarged by Christopher (born 1990) and Caroline (1993), lived three wonderful years. The Indian people, especially in South India, are wonderfully warm, and India was just beginning its now rapid development.

In 1996, we moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where I was assigned as political officer. Kenya has traditionally been an island of stability and development in Africa and, thus, an ideal place from which to view the rest of Africa and enable this Sinologist to begin to understand Africa. The U.S. Embassy is very active in pushing democratization and good governance (a euphemism for anti-corruption) in Kenya, so I have felt that the work we do here is valuable.

Kenya, moreover, is one of the most spectacularly beautiful countries in the world. We went on safari most weekends, and the children became adept at spotting lions, leopards and cheetahs, and discerning varieties of gazelles, zebras and giraffes. It has been a wonderful place to live.

Until 10:36 a.m., August 7 [1998].

That Friday morning began typically. The busy intersection of Hailie Selassie and Moi avenues, where the five-story (plus basement) embassy is located, was as bustling, noisy and colorful as it usually is. An evangelist on the traffic island called to passers-by to repent and come to Jesus. I was in the weekly counselors’ meeting in Ambassador Prudence Bushnell’s office on the fifth floor. She was away from the building (not safely away, it turned out—she was at the trade minister’s office on the 21st floor of the Cooperative Bank building adjacent to the embassy). I sat there as the discussion progressed getting more and more antsy. I knew that Joanne and the children would have arrived at the basement Medical Unit at 10:30 a.m. for vaccinations. She had taken both of them out of school for the appointment.

They were to have come in Thursday afternoon, but I changed it because I was too busy to join them then, and I wanted to be there for the shots, of which Caroline is not overly fond. So, I asked for a Friday 10:30 appointment, which would give me time to get downstairs from the 10 a.m. counselors’ meeting. I thought.

Joanne, I later learned, arrived at the embassy rear parking lot at 10:33 a.m., parked in the medical unit reserved parking space next to a strange yellow pickup truck [which F.B.I. investigators suspect was packed with explosives], entered the back gate of the embassy and walked down the long inclined ramp that goes from ground level down to the basement, where the medical unit is located. She, Christopher, and Caroline opened the back door from the garage at the foot of the ramp into the embassy basement. The door closed, and there was a heavy thud that shook the door. “What was that?” asked Christopher. “It sounded like a bomb.”

They walked on down the corridor and reached the medical unit door just as the world ended.

I looked at my watch, 10:30, anxious, knowing that my beloved children were in the basement and that I would always rather be with them than in any meeting. A military attaché was speaking about a joint U.S.-Kenya military exercise scheduled on the coast in late August, which the ambassador and I would fly down to observe.

A loud bang. The attache stopped, “That sounded like a grenade.” Then he continued. Nine seconds later the embassy exploded.

We were thrown to the floor, furniture tossed about, all windows blown away, ceiling caved in. We stood and staggered to the door into the central foyer of the building by the elevators. It was in shambles. I knew then that it had been, one, a bomb, and two, at the back of the building.

I ran to the stairwell and scrambled down the rubble remnant of steps.

Reaching the fourth floor I met dazed colleagues pouring into the stairwell. There was no panic, and everyone helped each other. Many were badly injured and bleeding. Third floor, and the blackness turned to daylight. The walls had been blown away. Second floor, completely wiped out, nothing left standing, all in smithereens of rubble.

Then I knew the third fact: The bomb epicenter had been at the bottom of the building. The medical unit stood at the bottom of the stairs I was crawling down. The world closed in, for it seemed inconceivable that a human being could have survived at the bottom.

I could not get through from the ground floor into the basement because of the rubble in the stairwell. So, I ran stumbling out the front of the building, down its long, devastated front and rounded the corner toward the back. There was a wall of flames; the back parking lot had been incinerated. I stopped. There was nowhere to go, just flames. “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” Standing there.

Then a tiny, soot-covered figurine wearing a dress came running around the back comer of the building—straight out of the flames, it appeared to me—shouting, “Daddy, Daddy!” It was Caroline. Then a slightly bigger figure, also screaming, “Daddy, Daddy!” Christopher. And right behind them, a woman, “Jim, Jim!”

We were all crying as we embraced through the iron bar fence.

They were caught between the building  and the perimeter security fence. Terrified that a second explosion would trap them, I called for help. Several men ran over and with adrenaline we bent those thick steel bars and squeezed Joanne, Christopher, and Caroline through, one by one.

I hurried them, crying, to the street and found a car to take them away, home. There were people lying all about in pools of blood, alive, dying, and dead. A vast black column rose from the rear of the embassy building, itself torn apart at the seams. Seeing my wife and children pull away in that car was a relief, a baptism of new life.

I ran back to the embassy and climbed to the second floor. In two trips, I helped two people out of the building. Then I was assigned to do an accounting of everybody in the building. The rest of the day I counted and identified bodies in a strange déjà vu of the Tiananmen body count. It was surrealistic as colleagues came running to tell me this colleague was alive, they had seen him off in an ambulance, or that colleague was dead, they had seen her body.

We lost more than half of our embassy, more than 100 people killed or seriously injured out of 200 people (eighty percent were Kenyan employees) in the building. We had been much more than “decimated”—ten percent casualties in military terminology. Those still able to function worked on adrenaline until the sudden equatorial darkness came at 6:30 p.m. With no electricity in the city, and uncertain of the building shell’s stability, we halted until sunrise. All night we visited morgues and hospitals trying to locate the missing.

Just before dark, I found a car to take me home for a quick stop to see how Joanne and the children were. I expected Joanne would have the suitcases packed and ready for the airport. But when I arrived home the children were in front of the house playing, and Joanne was talking with neighbors. She had rushed them home, bathed them, put them in front of the television, and turned on videotapes of innocence, The Brady Bunch. That distracted and calmed them all, and Joanne was ready now to go to those families that had lost someone. I returned to the embassy and to the hospital run.

U.S. rescue teams began arriving the next morning, and we spread out to help our neighbors. (Before that, we did not have enough manpower to even rescue or locate all the missing people in the embassy. Some news reports that the Americans did not help Kenyans outside of the embassy were wrong.)

In retrospect, I am extraordinarily proud of our embassy. There was never any panic, and every survivor turned immediately to help those in need. We spent the next week working around the clock, with little sleep, pulling people—mostly bodies—out of the embassy and surrounding buildings, checking hospitals and morgues to track the missing, and getting the vast rescue and investigation operation under way as the American planes began to land in Nairobi.

It has been an amazing experience, and polarizing. For our family, it has been joy and gratitude, counterbalanced by tragedy and sadness. We lost so many good friends, such good people. My Kenyan assistant, Edwin, always willing to help on any task. Louise Martin, Cub Scout leader and veterinarian working to rid Kenyan cattle of rinderpests. Evans Osongo, who returned to help his mother country, Kenya, leaving the U.S. after finishing his potentially lucrative MBA. And on arid on.

For the embassy, it has been destruction and devastation, but it has also been heroism arid dedication. Never before has an embassy utterly destroyed by a bomb of such magnitude continued to exist and function. Virtually every person stayed in Nairobi and helped in the recovery, even though the State Department announced a “liberal leave” policy that would have flown anyone back to the U.S. Those who were out of Kenya on summer leave returned as quickly as possible to join in the recovery. We are all working, doing what we each is trained to do.

Each officer walks around with a heaviness inside as they go about their jobs. It is a way of telling those responsible that they have not won, that America will just dig in deeper and that we will find them and punish them.

Each person who was in the building on Aug. 7 still carries the bomb around inside, and will for a very long time. Every time I enter a building, I can feel the bomb. Elevators are a real test, because they seem to bring the bomb out most quickly. The weeks since August 7 have been difficult for all of us. We have buried so many people.

We are all coping. Sometimes nightmares hit, or sleeplessness, as the might-have-beens seize control of your mind and keep you awake. The bomb is very present in the children’s consciousness. Five-year-old Caroline drew a picture yesterday of the embassy and the Cooperative Bank tower behind with a black spherical bomb hurtling toward the embassy. She titled it “Bom of Mbse.” Eight-year-old Christopher has been designing a high-tech embassy building that he insists will be bomb- and terrorist-proof. They are nervous about my going off each morning to the temporary embassy. And I will not allow Joanne and the children anywhere near the building; I can’t stand the thought of our being together again in any kind of vulnerable place. Doesn’t matter so much about me; I just want them to be safe. 

Adapted from “Surviving Double Jeopardy” in Carolina Alumni Review, Vol. 87, No. 6 (November/December 1998), 31 – 35. Based on an e-mail interview with Huskey from Nairobi conducted in Chapel Hill by Carol Douglas. Republished by permission of Carolina Alumni Review.



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