MANHATTAN (CN) – Federal prosecutors opened their case against Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to face a civilian trial, with emotional testimony from survivors of the U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Ghailani faces 286 charges for his alleged role in planning attacks and delivering explosives for al Qaeda in the coordinated blasts in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed more than 200 people on Aug. 7, 1998.
The government accuses Ghailani of buying the Nissan truck and helping load it with boxes of TNT, batteries, detonators, fertilizer and sand bags.
After the attacks, prosecutors say, Ghailani continued to serve al Qaeda as a document forger, physical trainer at an al-Qaeda camp, and as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.
Opening arguments were heard Tuesday. Prosecutors began with eyewitness testimony from survivors from both countries. Security guards, Foreign Service nationals, a U.S. Marine and a Catholic priest shared stories of the carnage and courage in the aftermath of the bombings.
Valentine Mathew Katunda, a senior guard at the contractor Ultimate Security Limited, recalled through a Swahili interpreter that he heard “a loud rumbling … like lightning” at his post in front of the Embassy at Dar es Salaam.
He said the details of the blast were hazy because he was “thrown to the floor” and slipped in and out of consciousness for the next four hours. The first time he came to, he was “covered with rubble from the gate” that collapsed on him and hurt his left shoulder.
“I couldn’t see anything because my face was completely covered with dust and cement,” Katunda said.
Channeling his alarm from the day’s events, he shouted in Swahili the words he cried on the day of the bombing: “I’m here! I’m here!”
As a picture flashed of Katunda on a hospital stretcher, prosecutor Nicholas Lewin asked about his bandaged forehead and bloodied leg.
“Injuries,” was his succinct reply.
His younger brother, Edward Mathew Rutahesherwa, who also testified, said he was taking a “tea break” from his security post at the time of the explosion. He escaped the Embassy by climbing over the wall and sped back to entrance to help his colleagues. There, he said he discovered the man who replaced him begging, “Matthew, please help me,” and he tried to drag him away from fires on either side of him.
Rutahesherwa said he saw the disembodied left hand of a friend, which he recognized by the ring on his finger.
For Justina Mbodilu, a lawyer employed at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, the symbol of the day was her watch, recovered from the site with its glass shattered and its minute hand missing, the hour hand pointing between 10 and 11.
Eight months pregnant on the morning of the attack, Mbodilu was at a meeting with then-Deputy Ambassador John Lange. She recalled feeling tired and wanted to ask for leave.
“I looked outside the window, and for a split second I saw something that looked like a flash of lightning,” she said.
She raised her arm to shield her face from the shattered glass that sprayed “like sand,” and a sustained boom “went through my chest for 15 seconds.” Led by soldiers and guards, she and her group avoided smoking wires, falling beams and cement chunks, and gunfire around the Embassy.
They climbed a ladder to safety on the other side, and she suffered cuts all over her body. Her baby was not hurt.
U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Brian Johnson he was in the bathroom when the blast sent him “flying through the air” in what felt like “slow motion,” but it “probably took a second.”
When he rose, he said, he fixed his uniform in the mirror, in keeping with Marine decorum. Then he led survivors out of the building, pushing doors open with his shotgun, and got them safely to their rally points. Before he left, he returned to his post to burn sensitive information.
The calling of witness George Mimba shifted the testimony from Tanzania to Kenya, the country of the larger blast.
Mimba said he thought he had heard an earthquake tremor; Nairobi is close to the Great Rift Valley. He said the explosion was something “beyond my senses.” He did not recall seeing or hearing anything else until he lost consciousness.
“I knew my time was up. I was waiting for the moment that my soul would go,” Mimba said, contemplating how his body would be handled in a country where “they don’t bury you so fast.”
As he waited for oblivion, he heard a voice say, “Young man, you are too young to die. Come out.” It gave him the encouragement to pull himself out of the rubble.
Reviving, he turned back to the building to rescue others, against the orders of a U.S. soldier who warned that it was unstable and those who entered would be shot.
“Then shoot me,” Mimba said, and he went in anyway. But he said he couldn’t rescue anyone because he passed out before reaching them.
He was taken to Nairobi’s St. James Hospital, where the staff “thought [he] was crazy” when he insisted on going back to the Embassy after they treated him.
He said he “limped” back about 5 miles to the Embassy, where the same soldier shook his head when he saw him.
His voice cracked as he testified that he saw bodies “burned beyond recognition” that “looked like roasted chickens.”
When prosecutors showed him pictures of two charred school buses, in which no passenger survived, he said, “This is what made me go back in the building.”
One photo submitted as evidence showed him escorting a victim whose face was bloodied beyond recognition. He never found out what happened to the man.
Like Mimba, Fr. Joseph Kiongo recalled saying a prayer when “all hell broke loose.” The Catholic priest said he was blind for three days and his arm was seriously injured. Doctors told him they might have to amputate, but he was transferred to another hospital that saved the limb.
Although he “couldn’t see anything,” Kiongo said he could “hear people praying and crying.”
He recovered from his injuries, but said his brother and niece “perished.”
Defense attorneys seldom cross-examined witnesses.
They did not dispute details of the bombing, but argued in their opening remarks that their client Ghailani was “naïve” and “duped” into helping in the attacks.
If convicted, Ghailani faces up to life in prison.
His trial is expected to last from 7 to 9 weeks, but may extend into next year.