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Woman Blinded by Bomb ‘Sees’ Hope

November 15, 1998

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ Catherine Bwire touches the feathery lashes of the newborn daughter she will never see.

``One day, she will tell me about the things I am not seeing,″ the shy young woman says. ``I will see the world through her eyes.″

Eleven weeks before giving birth, Catherine was blinded in the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. When her world went black, only the fluttering of the child in her womb gave her the will to live.

``When I was told I was blind, I felt I was now useless in this world,″ she says. ``My baby has really encouraged me because I thought, I’ve lost my sight, but I still have the baby.″

She beams a broad, crooked smile toward tiny Jean Bahati Lukhoba.

The baby has earned her middle name, Swahili for luck _ luck she had in surviving, luck she has brought her mother.

___

At 10:39 a.m. Aug. 7, Catherine, 25, was at her clerk’s desk in the federal teachers’ agency on the 13th floor of a downtown bank building. A bang outside drew workers to the windows in curiosity _ just in time to catch the force of a much larger explosion, a car bomb, that turned the windows’ glass and metal to shrapnel.

``It felt as if the front of my face was sliced off,″ she says. ``Already, I could not see.″

Clinging to her boss’s dress, she stumbled down stairs jammed with other casualties. She heard glass crunch beneath her shoes; she felt the handrail slick with blood.

Weakening on the third floor, she felt a man ``wearing rough clothing and gumboots″ lift her onto his back and carry her to the street.

``There was a lot of noise,″ she recalls. ``People were screaming. Ambulance sirens were going.″ Choking clouds of smoke carried the stench of burning flesh.

At Nairobi Hospital, surgeons plucked glass shards from Catherine’s neck, chest, arms and legs. But her belly was unscathed. Before passing out, her head swathed in bandages, she remembers thinking, ``but the baby is OK.″

Other women were not so lucky _ five bombing victims on her ward alone miscarried.

For days, Catherine clung to hope she would see again.

``I thought when the doctor removed the bandages I would be able to see. Two days later he did, but I was not able.

``Then I thought I would be able to see when he removed my stitches. Some days later, he did. I still was not able.″

Catherine’s chocolate-drop eyes, so badly damaged, were removed. Her long hair, filled with glass, was shorn. Her face is a maze of scars.

Blindness, Catherine laments, ``is a world of no beauty. It’s boring. You can’t admire how you look, and you don’t know how other people are dressed.″

But she says she’s learning sensitivity to textures and rhythms: ``It’s like I’m using the sense of touch to see. It’s becoming stronger.″

___

The blow of Catherine’s injuries ripples out to loved ones.

``At first, my husband was very distraught. He didn’t want anyone to talk to him,″ Catherine says.

``I feel angry about the whole thing,″ Henry Lukhoba, 32, acknowledges. He struggles with hatred he says he feels for all Muslims, whom he blames for his wife’s injuries and the deaths of 213 people in Nairobi. Eleven died in a simultaneous embassy bombing in neighboring Tanzania.

U.S. authorities believe Osama bin Laden, Saudi exile and militant Muslim, masterminded the bombings. Two weeks ago, a 238-count indictment unsealed in New York City charged bin Laden and a cohort with murder and conspiracy. Three alleged co-conspirators are already jailed in New York.

Henry’s distress worries his young wife.

``Henry can see maybe the situation is difficult to handle and maybe he will divorce me,″ Catherine says.

In Africa, when a spouse becomes disabled, ``it is quite common for couples to divorce,″ says Mary Kimathi, an officer with the Kenya Society for the Blind. ``In our culture, disabled people are not looked on favorably. The question becomes, did they really marry for better, for worse?″

Henry is a warehouseman with no permanent job. Catherine’s monthly pay of 5,700 shillings, less than $100, was their steady income.

Catherine’s father, George Albert Bwire, complains bitterly about losing that paycheck. Catherine was helping pay school fees for five younger brothers and sisters.

``She was hardworking and the breadwinner of the family,″ Bwire says. ``We deserve help.″

Some help has come. Besides $1,670 Catherine will likely collect as compensation, she and Henry have moved from a one-room, tin-roofed shack to a two-bedroom suburban apartment rented by foreign donors. One year was the period agreed to allow Catherine time to breastfeed Jean, retrain and find a new job.

___

Being blinded cost Catherine more than job skills.

``When you lose your vision you are like a child again. You no longer know how to walk, bathe, dress, eat or talk,″ Kimathi says.

The explosion completely blinded 25 people and left more than 75 with severely impaired vision. All face huge difficulties in Kenya, which has neither guide dogs _ few families could afford to feed one _ nor such simple aids as sidewalk warning bumps.

Initially, Catherine shuffled about timidly, waving her arms in search of walls or furniture. Now, by focusing on what her feet feel, she can follow a path through a grassy yard or a carpet down a hallway. Later, she will learn to use a cane.

At home, Catherine has relearned other skills: washing her hair, making a bed, peeling carrots and washing potatoes so she can help prepare meals. But her most pressing concerns are finding work and caring for Jean.

``I’m scared,″ Catherine says. ``It’s another life that I’ll be responsible for.″

To learn more, Catherine spent two weeks at an institute for the blind. Practicing on a doll, she learned to bathe and diaper a baby. Trickiest was dressing the doll. Baby clothing is so confusing, Catherine says, recalling how she fumbled to find the right openings. Which for the head? Which for the arm?

She also learned Braille. Painstakingly, she pushed bead-topped pins into soft wood to practice writing her name: ``C, positions one and four. A, position one.″

___

Today, more confident in her skills and finished with her anger, Catherine says she still feels lost. Her dream of a secretarial career was shattered, and she doesn’t know where to start again.

A telephone operator, perhaps, ``because it’s only sound,″ she muses.

Kimathi tells Catherine she’s aiming too low and urges her to consider computers, social work or public relations. She suggests a college degree.

But resources are meager. Kenya has no Braille computer to help her studies.

``I still cannot see my future, except I am seeing it will be difficult,″ she says. ``But it will be possible.″

Catherine’s beacon is the Oct. 27 birth of her daughter.

With her fingertips, she traces the snail-shell curves of Jean Bahati’s ears, the soft curls on her head, her long legs, then flashes that crooked smile.

``I had forgotten,″ she says, ``how it was to be happy.″

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