Nigeria's United Nations Bombing: 'It Was Like One Huge Scream'

In the last few months Boko Haram has ramped up attacks in Nigeria. After an earlier attack this year, a bomb victim in the Gwagwalada Specialist Hospital is comforted by his sister. Image by Bénédicte Kurzen. Nigeria, 2012.

Daniel was in a hurry to get to the office on the morning of Aug. 26. It was a Friday, a condensed half-day at United Nations House where he worked, and he wanted to get in early enough to do some final preparation for an important meeting. A nutritionist, he'd moved to Nigeria's capital, Abuja, a year and a half earlier, braving the horror stories of rampant corruption, power outages, and sporadic violence in order to take on a new professional challenge and, hopefully, do some good.

He had his work cut out for him. Nigeria has one of the world's highest rates of malnutrition. Over 40 percent of children under the age of five are moderately to severely stunted. And this despite the financial resources available to Africa's biggest oil exporter. It was a situation that could be infuriating, but Daniel, who requested that his real name not be used, still loved to go to work each day. This morning, however, he was suddenly gripped by a feeling of apprehension he couldn't understand.

“It was when I walked out of the house, I had this strange feeling,” he told me. “I think it is normal when something like this is going to happen. It was almost as if I didn't want to leave home.”

About that time, elsewhere in Abuja, a 27-year-old man who would later be identified as Mohammed Abul Barra was steeling himself for a murderous task. Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency he belonged to, had grown ever more daring in its assaults on the symbols of Nigerian government authority. Prisons and small-town police stations were early targets. But in recent months their attacks had become more tactically complex, their weaponry more sophisticated. Militants had begun ambushing army and police patrols in Barra's northeastern hometown, Maiduguri. Then on June 16, a car followed a convoy containing the head of the national police force into the parking lot of the police headquarters in Abuja and exploded. Nigeria had witnessed its first suicide bombing. It would not be the last.

Once considered a local nuisance in its native Borno State, Boko Haram were suddenly proving to be a national menace. And Barra was about to take the threat international.

Just before 10 a.m., he rammed a red Honda Accord through two security barriers and into the lobby of UN House, the world body's headquarters in Nigeria. There, after recovering from momentary shock, a security guard approached the driver-side door. Barra looked around briefly, slumped forward, and detonated the massive shaped-charge explosive packed into the car.

Some two dozen people were killed in the blast. More than 80 more were wounded.

Daniel was in a conference room when the explosion occurred. Here he tells his story.

“I didn't know about the seriousness of the clashes when I came here. I thought it was localized. I came with my family: my wife and my daughter, who was one and a half years old at that time. The way we have always looked at it is that wherever I went, we always wanted to be together as a family.

“I did some work at my desk before I went to the conference room where the meeting was taking place. A colleague stopped me, and we chatted a bit. He asked me about my projects. He asked me, 'Are you going to do this project in Yobe State as well? Because of security, I think we will not do it there.' This colleague of mine was killed. That was the last time I saw him.

“I went downstairs to the conference room for the meeting. We'd started a little bit late. We were maybe 10 or 15 minutes into our meeting when we heard the initial noise, which was very strange. We wondered what it was. It sounded like someone pulling a trigger, the actual sound of pulling a trigger. I think this was when the vehicle was hitting against the two gates, the two physical barriers. It wasn't an explosion initially.

“We stopped the meeting and said, 'What was this?' It was very strange. Maybe a minute and a half later, maybe less, there was the explosion.

“The explosion was very strong. It was a huge bang. You felt the impact. It's the kind of thing that when it happens there's nothing you can actually do. You can't defend yourself. If you're in the wrong place at the wrong time...

“Everything collapsed inside. The window panels flew inside. One of the panels hit me in the head. Then the ceilings came down, and the whole place was dark with dust.

“We sort of knew we had been bombed. A week before we had started intensely discussing it. There were statements that we'd been targeted. Some colleagues were able to quickly jump out of the room. Three of us went under the table. At that time, it's quite stunning. You can't really think properly. We were listening quietly to see if another explosion was going to come.

“It was terrifying. At that time you don't know whether you've been injured or whether you're okay. You sort of shake yourself up to feel if everything is still fine. But while you are processing all of this, you actually don't know what to do.

“One of my colleagues said, 'Look, this building is going to collapse. Let's get out.' We were close to a fire exit, so we went down. It was a painful experience. Getting out of the building. I could see my friends. I could look at their faces, but I couldn't say anything. I couldn't talk. I couldn't say anything. I think it was just shock beyond your imagination, where you couldn't actually say anything. I couldn't ask my colleagues if they were okay. I would just look at them.

“It was like one huge scream all across the building. There was screaming and mayhem and confusion. Then, as we were going out the main entrance, we saw the destruction in the reception area. We saw the blood. We saw some people lying on the ground. Some people bleeding. These were people that we would see every day.

“It was a shocking...horrific...painful sort of moment where you actually sort of wonder what sort of philosophy, reason or cause could motivate someone to do such a terrible attack on civilians.

“I saw one woman stuck on the first floor of the building with her legs dangling down, asking for help. The floor had been blown out from underneath. She'd managed to hang onto the wall of the building. But obviously she couldn't jump, and she couldn't go back inside.

“As we were coming out, we saw a lot of people lying dead. But quite a number of people that were killed were still stuck inside the building. We didn't see them immediately. Some were trapped under the rubble. We saw those that were injured that were trying to come out of the building, trying to get help.

“A colleague of mine said to me 'Let's just get out of here. Let's go. Let's go.' So we walked out of the building, walked out of the gate, and walked towards the taxis outside of the premises. As I was walking out, I remember one particular lady, a security guard, with serious wounds on her face and on her neck. She was trying to get to the water tap, and she just fell down. I think when I saw that, my shock sort of disappeared, and I realized I had to engage.

“The best thing I could do was to call for help. I called a very senior government official and said, 'We've been bombed. Can you send ambulances to the UN House?' She was shocked, but she immediately called the Minister of Health and the Minister of State, and they started to mobilize ambulances.

“I did go home afterward. I had blood all over my shirt. I didn't know if the blood was my own or someone else's.

“I didn't call my wife. I thought if I called, she would panic. I just wanted to get home first so she'd see I was okay. When I got home it was not yet on the news. She hadn't heard. I couldn't explain much, but I tried. She couldn't process it.

“All through the evening, we were calling around. Every hour, or every two hours you were hearing something sad. Then they started to report how many were killed, how many were injured.

“I remember five days, a week later I would get up in the morning, and almost every morning I would cry.”