WASHINGTON, D.C. – Doreen Oport was pulled from the rubble of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998 covered in blood. Her hair was burned from the bombing. Pieces of metal and glass were embedded in her skin.
The two decades since the bombing have been a difficult and “painful journey,” she said in a telephone interview this past week from her current home in Texas.
“I was angry. I was sad. I was annoyed. I just couldn't fathom that a human being could do this to another human being,” said Oport, 59, who had worked at the embassy as a senior immigration assistant, helping refugees from other countries relocate to the United States and Americans adopting children from Kenya.
The bombing on Aug. 7, 1998, and the nearly simultaneous one at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were the first major attacks on U.S. targets by al-Qaida. More than 200 people were killed and thousands were injured.
On Monday in Washington, Oport will join other victims of the bombings to hear arguments in a Supreme Court case that could affect the compensation they may receive for their injuries. The victims and their families, most of them foreign citizens, sued Sudan in U.S. court beginning more than a decade ago. They accused Sudan of causing the bombings by aiding al-Qaida and leader Osama bin Laden, who lived in Sudan in the 1990s.
A court awarded the group of more than 550 people approximately $10 billion in damages. But an appeals court threw out $4 billion of the award that was punitive damages. The court said the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act bars punitive damages for events such as the bombings if they happened before a 2008 amendment to the law. The Supreme Court will decide whether that's right.
The case is particularly relevant now because Sudan's transitional government wants to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and settling with the bombing victims is seen as critical to doing so. Getting off the list would allow Sudan, which last year ousted autocrat Omar al-Bashir amid massive public protests, to get loans to rebuild its economy.
It's unclear, however, how much the bombing victims might get from the cash-strapped country. Earlier this month, Sudan announced it had reached a settlement with the far fewer number of families of the victims of the al-Qaida-linked attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000; that settlement was said to be $70 million.
If the Supreme Court allows punitive damages in the embassy bombings case, it would be leverage to get a larger settlement for victims. Punitive damages are also important because they're "intended to deter future conduct by would-be bad actors," said Steve Perles, a lawyer for the victims.
Victims hope Sudan will ultimately pay.
Tobias Otieno, 69, worked at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi helping U.S. businesses that wanted to sell their products in Kenya. He was left nearly blind by the bombing and his left hand was severely injured. He said in a telephone interview from Kenya that he would like to use any money from the case to pay for his children's education and to buy a house. He would like to be a landlord, he said.
Oport said if she were to get money as a result of the case she would probably use some of it to travel. She moved to the United States in 2002 but her mother, who is in her 90s, is in Kenya. Oport said she would like to take her three daughters and her mom on a vacation, maybe to Australia or Israel, and to pay off her house.
Oport said though it's been nearly 22 years since the bombing, she still has lingering effects. She has back problems and wears a wig to hide baldness as a result of her injuries. She still gets scared any time she hears a loud sound.
“They should be able to own up and pay the punitive damages,” she said of Sudan. “Our lives are forever changed.”