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On red soil

Explosions in the sky

Written 16.2.2011 at 11:30pm

After a nice Ethiopian meal me and my friend waddle through the narrow lanes of Namanga to the bajaj stands. On the way my friend pays attention to some strange sounds in the air, but I just assume it’s a car bumping away with a loud bass. When I get my bajaj to go home, the driver asks if I hear the strange sounds. I start listening more carefully and yes, there is a loud boom somewhere in the distance, and before we know it, even the bajaj shakes on the road while we’re driving. When I get to my home street a strange feeling takes over – I see orange smoke in the distance and everyone is standing outside on the streets, young, old, in groups, in pyjamas. I get to our yard and see my landlady’s niece hanging by the porch so I ask if she knows anything about it. “The storm is coming” she says. Sunday and Tuesday have been windy, rainy and thundery in Dar, so again I just (wanted to) assume it’s a heavy thunder storm on its way.

What’s going on?
But then I look up again and the sky is more orange now, the smoke more vivid and the booms louder. I try calling my friends and colleagues to hear what’s going on, but nothing goes through and the only message passing my phone is ‘error in connection’. Minor panic starts settling upon me as the booms go louder and harder, never been in a situation like this. Finally my colleague picks up and tells me an army ammunition bunker has caught fire in Dar es Salaam. The sounds were not from thunder sounding like bombs, but actual bombs.

At last I get some peace of mind when my flatmate (who isn’t home) calls and says that the ammunition storage is 30 kilometres away, that this has apparently happened before and that the explosions will end soon. The peace of mind ends quickly with a text from my colleague urging me to stay inside and far from the windows, and another loud blast that shakes the whole house. After about an hour the situation has calmed down. I don’t see the smoke anymore, the booms are gone and the house is still standing. I also get through to my friend living in the area, who tells me he’s at another friend’s place now, safe, but can’t go to his own home.


Now starts the aftermath
I’ve followed the news on Twitter, but no one really knows all the details because it’s been too unsafe for any attempts to get close and extinguish the fire that has followed. The explosions happened in the Gongo la Mboto area in western Dar es Salaam, forcing the airport as well as the road leading to it to close. Debris is flying in the air all the way where I live in Mikocheni, so it’s best not to go out. And according to one sad Twitter update, up to 500 people are rumoured to have died. Nothing’s certain about that yet though, as an army spokesperson can’t confirm any casualties before Thursday, according to a Washington Postarticle. What is pretty certain though is that the plan of showing a project or two in Kisarawe district just behind the airport tomorrow to our 15 Finnish guests, who so happen to be journalists and corporate communications managers,  is not going to happen. Those of you in Finland will probably read about the incident more than in normal circumstances, exactly because of this group of reporters here now, but let’s see how long it takes before BBC News and other international media houses pick up on the news.

Bottom-line: I’m safe where I live but unfortunately can’t say the same for those staying near Gongo la Mboto. This will probably be the only topic of discussion tomorrow, and will try to keep you updated on the situation. Now off to bed. Lala salama (sleep peacefully)!
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Written 18.2.2011 at 10:30am

Looking for answers
The statistics following the explosions are all but clear, the latest figure is that over 20 people have died and over 300 been injured. At least 150 children have been displaced from their families, with phone operators yesterday sending text messages to all registered customers (including me) to go look for their lost children at specific and named police stations. Some 6000 have been evacuated to the National Stadium and many more have fled to neighbouring wards and districts. Hospitals are full and blood banks are running dry, voluntary blood donations were for example being collected at the Canadian high commission for anyone who could help. As yesterday unfolded it became clear that the stories are many, some of them exaggerated or bending the truth, but that this no doubt is a devastating tragedy.

Me, a few colleagues and some 10 reporters went to Kisarawe yesterday after all. The feelings were mixed about going, as the road leading there, past the airport, was officially closed, even though people were already using it in the morning. Some reporters who were supposed to join us on the field trip also decided to stay behind in Dar, to type up notes and follow leads on what actually happened the night before. And the rest of us were just tired from a long night and an early wake-up. We decided to take another, safer and longer, route to Kisarawe however. On the way we had to make a stop for one of the reporters to give a phone interview for the Finnish morning TV-news. As said, the magnitude of the damage is still unclear though and as we spent most of our time yesterday out in the bush the information was even harder to come by, but every now and then we called or got calls from friends and colleagues in Dar updating us on the latest news.

Even though the explosions started around 8.30pm on Wednesday night, none of the newspapers had had time to get the information in time before Thursday’s papers hit the printers. The army and defense ministry officers have been reluctant to say anything about the event, and the only real avenue of information has been the Swahili-speaking radio stations. Even they have given mixed reports however, as on Thursday the safety of the area around the explosions was not properly spelled out – some officials said they will blast the last bombs that hadn’t gone off the night before at 2pm on Thursday, other officials said it’s safe and people can return back to their homes. When we returned from Kisarawe the airport road had opened and we drove through Gongo la Mboto. You could see some of the houses had lost their roof, got a hole in the window or their brick walls destroyed.


This picture is taken from Simbadeo’s blog. When I look at it, my first thought is “I’ve seen this picture a million times before”, in world news from one war zone or the other. My second thought is “This actually happened some 30kms from where I live. I heard the booms that night and just drove past a house looking like this”. Gives some perspective and food for thought. There are a lot more pictures from the area included in the blog, along with a Tanzanian glimpse to the happenings so go have a look there if you have time.

More images on BBC.

A night of terror
Rather than the physical damage to houses, the personal accounts have been the worst. You read a lot of things in the newspapers but when you hear someone talk about them to you, with the seriousness and sadness shining from their faces, the situation becomes so much more real and heart-felt. Our Tanzanian cooperation partner in Kisarawe followed us from Dar, giving a presentation in the bus about the school feeding project we were going to see. His presentation was interrupted by constant phone calls however, relating to the night before, and the conversation quickly turned into more personal issues and information on what had happened. He told us about his friend who had just built a house in Gongo la Mboto but was told that the house is no longer there. He told us about his friend who had escaped with the family during the blasts the night before, but had lost one child in the process of pushing and shoving among the other escapees, and had gone back to the explosion area to look for his child. He told us about his cousin who is missing in that area. He told us that most people will not die because of the blasts but because of the shock – the panic was real, people were running, praying, screaming and leaving their houses in masses, jumped on daladalas’ roofs and sides, garbage trucks, motorcycles, anything that moves.

The saddest thing I heard was from my friend though, who I had been in contact with the night before. He hadn’t been home the whole night but yesterday when he had returned during the day, his whole house had been ransacked. A lot of looting takes place during exceptional circumstances, when people are running away from their homes, thieves run in and can steal everything without a disturbance in the world. The same thing had now happened to my friend, and his initial feeling was that of confusion. He is a middle-class Tanzanian, works as a waiter at a restaurant and has just set up his own company with friends who are in the process of producing a reality show for a local TV station. What was in his home was all he had, and now it’s all gone. All. Of. It. I can’t even begin to imagine what that feels like. Last night there was a reception for the Finnish journalists and Finnish NGOs in Tanzania, and while drinking wine and socialising with them I got a text from the same friend, telling me he had gone to a friend’s place because he couldn’t eat and couldn’t get sleep at his own home. It felt so absurd and wrong to be at the reception then, when others have lost their home, their belongings or the lives of their close ones. I feel ashamed.

The role of international media in national tragedies
Spending so much time with journalists in this kind of situation has been interesting though, and the role of media and reporting post-disasters have come in a completely new light for me following the explosions. Being at or near the scene of action gives any situation a bigger significance and the Finnish reporters have made sure to write and inform their newspapers and broadcasting companies to include the news. During some discussions I overheard, the question came up of how important it is to actually write about this in Finland though. As the reporters from the reputed Finnish national broadcasting company had published the news, other news, government and intelligence agencies in Finland had also began reacting to it. As long as there is a home country angle involved, the story may be interesting for the wider public. Some Finnish tourists had been stranded on the airport when it had shut, not being able to board the plane, shuffled outside during the explosions with no information on what is going on. That’s the home country angle covered. But still, does it always take that to make a story significant?

One freelancer photographer had gone to the hospitals near the explosion area yesterday, I saw the pictures of people crowding outside, injured people inside and crying women lying on the streets. The ethics of such reporting and photograph taking are questionable, but the feeling of desperation and sadness of the situation really came through the images. The explosions on Wednesday have directly afflicted at least 10,000 people and many many more indirectly. Yet this news had already moved down the significance ladder of newspapers abroad, with the most important foreign news being that ONE diver had been killed by two sharks in Australia. Can’t remember which news site I read this from, but it’s ridiculous nevertheless. People die everyday all over the world, news come out from conflict-prone Middle East every other hour but when something like this happens in Africa, the rest of the world turns away. May sound a bit dramatic but really, Wednesday was not just a minor incident.

It’s always about politics
To top it all off, the explosions have become a highly political question in Tanzania. With all other political discussions and problems going on at the moment (I know I’m bad, was supposed to write about the elections ages ago already), this is another one for the books. A similar explosion happened at army barracks in the Mbagala area of Dar es Salaam in 2009, the destruction was a bit smaller than the one now in 2011, but the panic similar. Now apparently the military leaders were the same then as now, Chief of Defence Forces, General Davis Mwamunyange, and Minister of Defence and National Service of Tanzania, Dr Hussein Mwinyi. The opposition has been very explicit and demanded these two to resign, as in a The Citizen article published in today’s paper. The Wednesday explosions have been accredited as an accident, some saying the thundery weather caused the old ammunition from the Kagera war of the 1970s to light up. People are angry and sad and want answers though, and this does not seem good enough. Recent reports would also suggest that no families of officers of the defence force have been injured. Tanzania relies on informally acquired information, so nothing is ever for certain, but to quote a friend: “military evacuated their families from gongolamboto for 2hrs in the middle of the night. A week a go..”

Something’s in the making and Wednesday night’s happenings will not be left in peace. I’ll keep updating this post when I find out something more.

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Written 19.2.2010 at 5:45pm

There’s still no certainty of how Wednesday’s explosion could really happen, speculations are plenty but a common reason reiterated in many places is that of negligence. The Citizen has once again written an interesting article on the topic.

A few days ago I also noticed my colleague’s half-Finnish, half-Tanzanian son who is just about to graduate from high school and already has a well-established music production company with friends, has come out with a song dedicated to the victims and those affected by the 2009 Mbagala and Wednesday’s Gongo la Mboto explosions: Toa Ndugu by various artists. The youth are mobilising.

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Written 22.2.2011 at 5:30pm

The search for causes to Wednesday’s explosion continues. The Tanzania People’s Defence Force (TPDF) has launched an investigation into what went wrong at Gongo la Mboto, but with the terms of reference and team members of the probe unknown, the reliability and accountability of the study is also jeopardised. Newspapers’ editorials have echoed people’s anger at TPDF. Almost exactly the same thing happened at Mbagala army barracks two years ago, the results of an investigation into the causes of that bomb explosion were never published and it is argued the army chiefs did not draw any lessons or make any amendments to make sure such a deadly incident doesn’t happen again. There are still four similar ammunition storages located in and around residential areas of Dar es Salaam, what prevents them from exploding too?

One may question why these barracks are so close to residential areas, or vice versa? Dar es Salaam has grown way out of proportion and with truly high high-rises only appearing in the centre now, the city’s population has expanded horizontally rather than vertically. Those living closest to these army depots are the army officers and their families. The rumour I heard earlier already, that none of the army officers nor their families had been hurt in the explosions is becoming more and more suspect. I’ve now also heard it from people with acquaintances/friends in the army, and although everything is still hear-say, it does seem very likely that the army had evacuated their families before the blast occurred, bringing us back to the question of causes.

The official death toll is at 26 now, but apparently only 4 people died of a direct hit from a bomb, one died of a snake bite and the rest in the running chaos that followed or at the hospital. Considering the amount of people living around there, that the explosions started when it was already dark and the fact that over 2000 remains of bombs, over 300 bullets and over 600 fuses, according to today’s Daily News article, it’s really difficult to trust these death counts. Even the Finnish consul, who had been up all night answering concerned Finns’ calls and the ones stranded at the airport in the middle of the night, had a grenade explode 10 metres from him in his backyard in the Peninsula, over 2okms away from the explosive scene. Many residents in Gongo la Mboto and further away have still not dared to go back home, in the fear of by mistake touching or stepping on one of the non-exploded bombs. The fear is real, since at least four children died of a bomb that had remained intact three months after the Mbagala explosions.

And my last 5 cents to this discussion for today, I heard that the journalists who were here last week confessed before leaving that the explosions wouldn’t have made the headlines if not for the Finnish tourists stranded at the airport. Since none of the international media seemed very interested in the incident in the first place either and I doubt they’ll update the news even if it would turn out that the explosions were not an accident, I’ll make it my mission to keep you updated on the situation through this post. The story continues…

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Written 24.2.2011 at 8.30pm

There’s not really any new information circulating around the incident, though what went wrong, who to blame, how to get back to normal life are still hot topics in the press. However, today I was browsing through pictures I’ve taken during the last few weeks, and came across the ones from Kisarawe the day after the explosion. As we were driving back to Dar es Salaam, we drove past Gongo la Mboto, and I had never noticed before that there are daladalas actually marked with the area as an end stop (G/Mboto). I took a few pictures of them on the way back to Dar that day, and without then paying much attention to the background I now noticed a sign behind one of the daladalas I was aiming to take a picture of. A day after the explosions, taking a picture of a Gongo la Mboto daladala, and what do we have on the sign in the background? A Tanzania People’s Defence Force sign, is what it is.

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