Plastic chairs strewn about at Kyadondo Rugby Club, blood splattered on them and more pools forming a puddle on the turf or the mangled bodies . . . it’s the kind of traumatic image many Ugandans would want to forget but even 10 years isn’t soon enough for them.
Yet, a decade to that happy-turned gloomy Sunday July 11, those who survived the deadly blasts remember the tragic night like it happened yesterday.
At half-time that fateful night, deadly explosion carried out by Somali Islamist militants ripped through a restaurant, the Ethiopian Village, in Kabalagala. But the news either never reached the fans at Kyadondo Rugby Club, or, if it did, the few who received it were too engrossed in beer, nyama choma and fun to think much of it.
Until three minutes to the final whistle when, at 11.18pm, the first blast ripped through the open ground, followed shortly after by a second one, each as deadly as death itself.
A sports date to miss
The Fifa World Cup final is the pinnacle of football. To others, this match is the biggest stage in world sport. And that moment comes once every four years to determine the best nation in the world’s most famous sport.
Today marks 10 years since the World Cup ball ‘Jabulani’ was last kicked in South Africa. That was the first time the tournament had been held on the continent.
And for the whole of this month, Africans have toasted to memories of that edition either with re-posts of their photos on social media or blowing their now old vuvuzelas.
Over the past four weeks, some sports journalists across the continent have interviewed Siphiwe Tshabalala to recap the moment he struck the tournament’s first goal as hosts South Africa’s Bafana Bafana played out a 1-all draw with Mexico.
But Uganda has sad memories of the tournament, especially of the final between Netherlands and eventual winners Spain.
A total 76 people were killed by the suicide bombings – for which Somali terror group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility – on the night with scores injured.
Of the dead, 62 were Ugandans, there were six Eritreans while Kenya, Sri Lanka, USA, Ireland, India and Ethiopia all lost a citizen.
Several sports journalists and sportsmen had been invited to the screening of the World Cup final at Kyadondo and most survived the night.
“By the Lord’s grace, can’t be anything else,” NTV Press Box show host Andrew Kabuura speaks of how he survived.
“(That is) because a friend, Steve Tinka who was standing behind with us, was hit too. He was rushed to hospital and it’s from there we were told he passed on.”
Painful! The party had been organised by public relations firm Scanad in partnership with one of their clients Uganda Breweries Limited (UBL).
“My role was to liaise with sports journalists to attend the event and provide publicity,” says Tina Wamala, who was then part of PR and marketing firm Scanad.
“So I knew a month or so before where I was going to watch the final from. Had it not been for the ‘work engagement’, I was going to watch the final at my parents’ home.”
Then, Kabuura was working with Vision Voice Radio (now XFM). He had just returned from South Africa where he had watched some games live from the stadium of the Rainbow Nation, hence was picked as the event’s emcee at Kyadondo.
“I was obviously excited to watch the finale with some friends there too,” he recalls. He was in the company of Albert Ahabwe and Phillip Corry.
“I had been invited to watch the game at Kyadondo by UBL. So yeah, that was my plan and that’s how I ended up there,” says Ahabwe, an avid basketball fan.
It appears Wamala, now a communication officer at British High Commission Uganda, and company had done a great job to lure people to Kyadondo.
“Kyadondo filled up pretty quickly and me and my colleagues were lucky to escape the scramble at the gate because we got there early. The fanfare was beyond imaginable,” she says.
“It was a proper party, colourful, folks singing in their jerseys, blowing vuvuzelas and having a drink,” Kabuura remembers.
All was normal through to half-time. The party did not stop when the second stanza got underway.
Extra-time that never came
The Dutch, led by Arjen Robben, missed two chances that could have buried the encounter inside the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg. With no goals yet, the match was headed for extra-time. But not just yet at Kyadondo.
“We ushered fans in with music and performances on stage and all good until the 87th minute as Spain was piling the pressure on the Dutch.”
“Then all of a sudden, boom. The first blast went off,” Kabuura recalls. “Those of us who were standing behind actually asked folks running towards us to sit down so we focused on the game as we weren’t very sure what had happened.”
“A few seconds later, the second blast went off. That scared all of us because it took out the screen and some electricity wires just above it. We started running towards the entrance.
“The saddest part was that I saw people in the middle seats still seated and realized this was horrible. But we kept running and luckily we made it out.”
Ahabwe, who was then with East African Business Week, had been reminiscing about a missed opportunity by the Dutch.
“I remember I was chatting with a guy behind me about how wasteful Elia (Dutch winger) was when the first bomb went off. I fell from my seat. I get up, look back and it’s a bloody mess! The guy I had just been talking to and the ladies he was seated with had their upper bodies shredded!”
“I look up and only half the screen is showing. People are running to the entrance, others are lying dead. There was a space between the security barriers next to the screen, I dashed through it and went to the pitch. Where I was on the pitch was a good distance away...in a very short time, the second bomb went off, it was loud!” Ahabwe adds.
“Bebe Cool was on stage when the first bomb went off. We thought it was a power circuit but within a few seconds the second bomb went off and that is when we realised it was a bomb,” Wamala says.
“My friends and I used the trench as our escape route because the scramble on the grass patch was incomprehensible.
“People were screaming, I was crying, people were pushing and shoving. I saw someone’s hand land near where we were running. The scenes were horrific.
“People were running smudged in blood on their faces and hands. The desire to survive overtook all logic during that time.
What had been a scene of merry-making and cheering on football stars had turned into a place of pandemonium.
“Our aim was just to get out of the venue. Once out, we crossed the road and called my driver to pick us up. When he arrived he told us many people were admitted at Mulago due to bomb blasts at Ethiopian Village Restaurant. That’s when we put the two together,” Wamala says.
It was indeed a lucky day for these survivors, especially Corry.
“My drink saved me but initially me and Ahabwe took our front seats but we said the screen was too near and the images were a bit blur, we decided to go to the back,” the veteran sports journalist says.
Twice a bomb blast survivor
Corry has been around sports so long enough that he has survived two bombings. The first during the 1998 World Cup final when rebel group ADF left a bomb that killed a few and injured some at the now defunct Slow Boat near Diamond Trust Bank building.
“Well, I think God protected me first because the grenade or bomb went off at half time,” the former WBS Television and Kawowo Sports editor.
“I wanted to get a drink at that time but I hesitated in fact on the night with other guys like veteran journalist and sub-editor at Vision Sports desk William Muwonge and then Express FC executive Robert Sawa Senabulya.”
Corry, now more into golf events, probably has nine lives. He came through the Kyadondo scenario unscathed.
“Bebe Cool and a girls’ group I forgot but one of the girls is called Brenda Nambi [formrly of Obsessions and HB Toxic]. The bomb would have killed many people at half-time because people were excited and drunk plus the pleasure of music and giving out prizes was just too much.”
“Had we not been called to go to the tent (which was at the back) by my client, I could have been one of the casualties. I began calling all my media on at a time to make sure they were safe, I thank God none of my media people was a victim that night,” said Wamala.
One of the Rugby Cranes’ players who survived was Michael Wokorach. Before, he was in Nairobi, Kenya for the Elgon Cup match and flew back on the day of the final.
Being a player for Heathens Rugby Club, which is based at Kyadondo, he chose to catch the final when they were dropped off there from the airport.
“I entered for free but I found the front packed. So I chose to stand behind because I am tall and it was a very big screen,” he said.
“But the people at the front were hit by the fragment and were all dead. If I were sitting in front, I would have died. The first fragment is what killed most people. I really thank God I survived,” he adds.
Wokorach survived with other teammates then Chris Lubanga and Robert ‘Soggy’ Seguya. He says a big part of the rugby fraternity survived because it was a Sunday.
“Most people come for rugby on Saturday and that weekend, we had been in Nairobi that’s why they weren’t there.”
Living with the trauma
Outside Kyadondo was a mess. People were leaving Kyadondo dripping with blood and some with bits of flesh from those killed.
“I bought airtime, called Kabuura and he was safe. I couldn’t get through to Corry, I was worried he was dead.”
The horrendous night left many scars to the survivors.
“I kept on having nightmares after that night for consecutive days for more than a week. My employer was kind enough to give me a few days off to deal with the trauma. It was frightening, every time I closed my eyes, I would recall the horrific scenes - the hand that fell near where we were running, bloody heads and people running, the stampede, the screams. I couldn’t go out for about five months, I was scared all the time,” Wamala adds.
Others took a while before stepping out for social gatherings.
“I didn’t go to crowds for a year save for basketball. And I am very careful in crowded spaces since. I always have eyes on the exit because you never know when you need it,” notes Ahabwe, now working in the communications department at Uganda National Roads Authority.
“It changed my life a lot. It has helped me appreciate life a lot and I try as much as possible to enjoy. I live everyday as it comes,” adds Wokorach.
Kyadondo has since beefed up its security but for as long as the survivors live, the venue and this will always draw open those wounds in the mind.
May the souls RIP!