Blast survivors live to tell the tale
By Robert Ochieng and Edwin Agola
Dar es Salaam - a home to nearly 4 million people with vast swaths of unplanned human settlements and poorly developed infrastructure - suddenly came under fire this week, as explosions hit the country`s commercial city on Wednesday killing at least 20 people and destroying properties worth millions of shillings.
Some thought the country had been invaded, while others who still remember the 1998 terrorist attacks believed Osama Bin Laden`s men had attacked Dar es Salaam again, this time targeting civilians instead of the US embassy.
But all of them were wrong. It wasn`t a terrorist attack or invasion but an unplanned explosion of unguided missiles, which according to military experts, can cover a range of 26km.
The biggest fear was that the missiles would continue to explode, meaning Dar es Salaam`s city centre could have been deadly ravaged within just a few hours.
But thanks to efforts by the military missile experts, the disaster was tamed before it destroyed the country`s commercial capital.
The city`s skyscrapers, airports and other key suburbs could have been seriously damaged if the unplanned explosions had continued, according to military experts.
``Our worry was that these are guided missiles but they have exploded without being guided…they could have randomly hit various areas like the airport, fuel storage depots and skyscrapers,`` a senior military official said.
According to the military official, their worry surged after sensing that some missiles were exploding toward their Kurasini fuel depots.
``Just imagine that unguided missiles are hitting the Kurasini depots…It would have been a deadly disaster for Dar es Salaam,`` he said.
Pius, a father of five who lost his son in the explosions, summed up the ordeal this way: ``If this is how war is, then politicians should spare us…let them compete fairly during the elections, but we don`t ever need a war.``
As Dar es Salaam residents recover from the shocking explosion, survivors of this week`s tragedy are narrating their ordeal as others mourn the deaths of their loved ones.
Aquiline Otaru, 46, routinely boarded a daladala at Kizinga bus stop at 6:30 am on Wednesday, as she headed to work at Muhimbili Hospital.
She will hold dear to her memory that fateful Wednesday, as she reported earlier than usual at the children`s ward to tidy the room before doctors started their normal rounds. As the doctors were going around the ward she stopped for a tea break.
Breaking news flashed on popular Radio One station in the hospital canteen made her shiver, dropping a cup of tea. ``Oh my God, my children,`` she wailed uncontrollably as she ran towards the gate to catch the next daladala for home.
The armory site that exploded in the Mbagala area of Dar es Salaam is a stone’s throw away from Otaru`s home, where earlier that day she had left her 3-year-old child Mariana in a deep sleep under the care of her house girl Fatuma.
Her other two children Mwajuma, 10, and Henry, 15, were attending lessons at nearby schools.
While some traders braved the situation to lock up their shops, for others everything else paled in comparison to the values of their lives, and they took to their heels in all directions - earning looters a field day.
The blast from exploding artillery shells, bullets and other ammunition, which took place at the JWTZ army camp, was felt throughout the whole of the coastal city.
In its wake, many houses within the camp`s proximity were set on fire while others incurred light to heavy damages, according to eye witnesses.
In its aftermath, lives that people at the centre of the incident desperately wanted to save were lost, and the toll keeps rising, with the authorities having placed it at 20 people as of yesterday.
Besides the lives lost, The Guardian on Sunday visited the site of the incident the following Thursday and witnessed extensive damages suffered by the hapless Kibonde Maji B residents.
Seventy-five-year-old Maria Biringi was still asleep in the modest four-bedroom house belonging to her daughter Reinfrida Kalifo, who was away at work in town when all hell broke loose.
``I was resting on my bed here,`` she said, pointing to a three-by-six wooden bed tucked in the corner of a dimly lit room. The room’s door was missing, after the powerful explosions sent it flying toward Biringi`s bed.
``I don`t want to imagine what would have happened if it wasn’t for this mosquito net stand,`` she said.
“At first I mistook it for an electric transformer that had blown out just across from our house here,`` she said. “And it wasn’t just that once. It never stopped as more explosions with flying debris kept on coming causing panic that sent people running wildly all over the place.``
Biringi says she owes her lucky escape to God: ``I`ve never seen anything like it before, and I shall never forget it for as long as I live. How I managed to come out of this alive is God’s miracle.``
In fact, when her daughter rushed back home to find out if those whom she had left behind were safe, she was greeted to an empty house, and instantly thought that what she had feared had actually happened, Biringi explained.
The home has been damaged beyond the bedroom, Biringi showed. A section of the roof has sunk in, the kingpost having broken. Light peers through the iron sheets, at the point where they have detached.
Several fault lines can be seen on the walls of the house.
As people fled the flames and metallic pieces, some children stumbled into a nearby river and drowned.
The explosion and its aftermath are believed to have killed at least 20 people and displaced more than 700, with thousands of others having suffered from minor to severe injuries.
Tanzania Peoples` Defence Forces (TPDF) chief medical officer Brigadier General Prof Yodan Kohi told Pesident Jakaya Kikwete, who toured the place on Thursday, that six fatalities, including the civilian who died on the spot, were working inside the armoury at the time of the explosions.
Kohi said of the five soldiers killed in the blasts, one was a senior army officer. Their identities, however, have not been revealed.
According to the military medical officer, a solitary dismembered leg found later within the armoury was the only remaining sign of any of the six missing bodies.
He said 163 people were injured in the blasts, 35 seriously injured and 24 were referred to Muhimbili National Hospital, where 10 of them were treated and discharged.
With scanty information being made available, the death toll from the tragedy is now believed to be increasing, including fatalities reported to have occurred amongst civilians residing or working in various areas within the vicinity of the army camp.
Meanwhile, police authorities in Dar es Salaam have given conflicting figures putting the number of severely injured casualties being treated in various hospitals at 156. They said the death toll may rise as searches were still being conducted in burnt-out buildings.
The cause of the explosion is unclear yet, and an investigation has been launched to establish the cause of the blast, although officials believe it was accidental. Several hundred children are also waiting to be reunited with their parents after fleeing the explosion.
Several people have expressed anger at the needless loss of lives, and public commentators and analysts have expressed concern at the practice of situating ammunition depots within military barracks housing thousands of servicemen and their families.
Military and political leaders have also spoken of lessons to be learnt from the tragedy, especially as it concerns taking measures to prevent a recurrence.
The Red Cross Commander of the operation, Francis Msisi, said a total of 250 people were sheltered at the Mgulani camp and 17 others at the Mbagala Kizuiani camp.
``At JKT Mgulani we have got 250 children and adults,`` said the Red Cross operations commander, adding: ``We are dealing with many cases of house girls who got lost in the process.
This is because most of them are new to the city. So when they ran away in fear, they got lost.``
Meanwhile, the rescue team has been working round the clock to ensure that those in need of essential supplies, including food, water and clothing, were attended to.
According to Msisi those sheltered at the two camps had since Wednesday been supplied with food, water and drugs.
The Guardian on SUnday Staff Writers on the ground covering the humanitarian segment said a delegation of United Nations (UN) and United Nations Children`s Fund (UNICEF) officials toured the camps yesterday.