Kampala World Cup Bombings: To hell and back

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By Andrew Kabuura

The obvious fact that I will never, ever, physically see one of my best friends again is a disturbing thought that calls for me to meditate.

It’s even far more frustrating when I recall that I could have been the one lying in a wooden coffin amidst hundreds of mourners at the Kamwokya Catholic church.

My friend Tinka Steven is dead, courtesy of the bombs blasts at Kyadondo Rugby Club.

Images of him and I chatting, moments before his last breath, keep making rounds in my head as the pastor delivers his sermon which is complimented by many wet eyes at his funeral service. It’s a skin-peeling experience for me to take in but I have to look plucky.

We were together for over 30 minutes as Tinka demanded I tell him all about my trip to South Africa, where I had watched the opening rounds of the 2010 World Cup. I even promised we would meet somewhere soon so I could finish up my narration.

During the funeral, I receive a text message informing me of another friend who, like Tinka, didn’t survive the blasts. She actually wasn’t that close to me but I had just given her a t-shirt and vuvuzela for wining the “who can blow the vuvuzela loudest among the ladies” challenge minutes before the game kicked off.

On the bench just next to mine, is an old lady partially seated on the day’s newspaper showing other victims. My eyes don’t do my nerves any justice by identifying almost everyone dead, considering I had seen most of them on stage – it’s a bad day in my life, for families of the deceased and in Uganda’s archives.

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To any football and fun loving Ugandan, July 11 started as an affable day at Kyandondo. Africa’s first ever World cup was showing on big screen, many local artists were set to grace the event and thirdly, it was the biggest game on planet earth – a World cup final.

Being the promotions manager at Vision Voice, a radio station, I went over to the venue to confirm branding material was in place and everything was good to go. The radio station was co-sponsoring the event.

That to-be fateful twilight was promising and by 5pm, revelers started arriving in numbers with anticipation. The site of vuvuzela blowing and hugging soccer fans screaming either Spain or the Netherlands made me almost want to hastily jump onto stage and start my day’s role, emceeing. It was a carnival which had attracted different kinds of fans.

Little did I know that a mass assassin was somewhere in the crowd helping to register this day as a dark moment in Uganda’s history, which would commence in a five day morning period.

By 7pm, together with a co-MC, I had started arousing the crowd en route 9:30 – kickoff time! It was massive, electric and thought of the two great teams set to battle had the crowd expanding every minute. It was getting darker, the lights looked lovely – every soccer fan’s dream soccer ambiance!

At 8pm, we started giving out different prizes like vuvuzelas, branded t-shirts, squeeze bottles and other things to different party goers who dared to compete in various tasks. Popular musicians drove the already ripe crowd wilder by pulling tracks off their latest albums.

Fireworks lit the Kyadondo grounds as the game kicked off to screams and loud vuvuzela noises from the watching crowd. Mixed with screams and tears for some, the second half approached quickly, no one knew the faster the second half went towards the 87th minute, the closer many got to their last breath.

Three friends and I opted to catch this historical game at the very end of the crowd. It’s only now that I realize how lucky I am, considering I was meant to sit on the front row, which was steps from the first blast!

*******

It’s the 87th minute and I hear a very loud blast; I see people running while screaming. It all seems a joke. Considering the loud sounds of fireworks before the game had registered in people’s minds, many, including me feel it is a short circuit of some sort. We wrathfully tell the dashing people to calm down considering the match is at a critical stage. None of us, the shouting revelers, realize that people’s throats and heads are divided into pieces – many are dead.

Almost 30 seconds after the first blast, another goes off and this time it shatters the massive screen we are watching from, causing screams from the front seats. Something is really wrong! The feel of something dangerous grabs me; my first option is to run towards the exit as opposed to taking to the floor. Meanwhile people from different parts of the crowd are screaming loudly almost every microsecond. Bomb fragments are flying, killing or severely injuring many.

On my way to exit, while helping pull a traumatized friend along, disturbing images register in my head. I see most of the front row seats with the occupants still seated, motionless – they are either dead or in shock.

So, here is the worst bit; we are all scattering out, into the car park without an idea where the next bomb is planted.

Meanwhile, I see my friend Tinka Steven on the floor but can do nothing about it as, for a second, my brain isn’t functioning – a fragment from the bomb has torn through his skull. At this point no one can afford to help the other because we are all trying to rush for safety, and more importantly we are trying to avoid the next explosion if there is to be one.

Voices of different people calling out names of their friends or relatives are heard all over the place. Most memorable is my elder brother, Duncan, who repeatedly shouts my name demanding for an answer.

*******

Within five minutes all the able people had evacuated the venue. At this point it’s painful to remember that many were still inside, both helpless and needing medical attention or having taken their last breathe.

As I write this, am trying my hardest to forget this night. Back at office, photo desk, I am seeing pictures of the same people I was hugging and laughing with on stage lying in their chairs breathless, deformed and filled with blood.

Bomb squad vehicles and ambulances all arrived shortly to try and save the helpless and also transport the dead to mortuaries.

*******

It’s even more upsetting when I hear various radio callers the next morning. One caller has just discovered she lost all five friends she had been with, a mother lost all her four kids while hundreds can’t believe the news. Kampala has been grabbed with fear and is filled with tears.

It’s very hard to describe what I feel about July 11. A day that started with piles of promise and joy to have ended with trauma and silence in many homes is something I am praying to forget one day. I am a survivor.

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