Al-Qaeda’s forgotten victims of the US embassy bombings
When Americans talk about terrorism, they seem to fork time as being “before” or “after 9/11,” using the most infamous of many attacks as the chronological starting point for foreign terrorism against the United States. Many other horrific events tend to be overlooked.
Case in point: Wednesday August 7 marks the 21st anniversary of Al-Qaeda’s double attack on the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 12 Americans and hundreds of Kenyans and Tanzanians. Two of the American diplomats killed in the bombing had served in Israel, one of the United States’ greatest allies, before serving in Kenya. Julian Bartley, whose son Jay was also killed in the attack, worked at the US mission in Tel Aviv. The other victim was my mother, Prabhi Guptara Kavaler, who worked at the former US consulate in East Jerusalem with my father, Howard Kavaler. Israel has left a deep mark on our two families. My mother tried unsuccessfully for years to call me “Ima”.
The morning of August 7, 1998, started out like every morning since my family moved to Kenya two weeks ago. I woke up and poured myself a bowl of Golden Crisp cereal with powdered milk, the norm in Nairobi where the cost of regular milk was outrageous and could also make you sick. I picked up my book, The Red Badge of Courage, and started reading, eager to know that it was Friday and that my parents would be more present for the weekend. We had lived in Nairobi before, when I was three years old. I was alone and my friend Karin, my closest friend I met on our previous tour, was out of town. I called my mom to let her know about the status of my work. My mother, who we would now describe as a “mother tiger” was from India. School started the next week and she wanted me to be ready, so she assigned me math problems to do every day. When I called mom, she told me she couldn’t speak now and would call me back in five minutes. This was the last time I spoke to him.
Fifteen minutes passed and I tried to call Mom, but there was a busy signal. After a few minutes, I tried again and again. After receiving the same busy signal when I tried to call my dad, I knew something was wrong.
I went out and talked to the guard, that every diplomat had in Kenya, and asked him if he knew what was going on. He told me that a bomb had exploded and that I had to go into the house. I went back inside and started to sob.
My mother was smart, funny, and fiercely patriotic. She also instilled these values in me, in different ways. Like most parents, my mother often told me before going out in public that I should behave well. His explanation, however, was slightly unorthodox: my bad behavior would have a bad image of America. We have represented the United States of America abroad and acting inappropriately would make people believe that all Americans have acted that way.
Mom met Dad on his first posting as a Foreign Service Officer in India. After marrying my father, she became a U.S. citizen and also joined the foreign service. My mother did this even though many told her that she would never pass the foreign service exam; they said it was difficult and that she did not have the same knowledge base as those born in the United States. She passed her first try. Now my mother is the first American of Indian descent to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. My father, who died six days after the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death, is now buried with her.
Since American embassies are considered American soil, the attacks of August 7, 1998 were attacks against America.
Americans should use this day not only to remember my mother and all the others who were killed that day while working in the service of the United States, but also to remember that American diplomats have risked their lives to serve their country. Foreign service families are the first responders to the diplomatic community. They deserve a new measure of time for Al-Qaeda terrorism perpetrated on American soil: “Before August 7 and after”.