visual7/iStockBY: CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC NEWS
(WASHINGTON) — Edith Bartley had just arrived in Tennessee to visit family members in August 1998 when she got the call from her grandmother: Had she seen the news?
The 25-year-old law student was on break between her summer internship at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and returning to University of Missouri Law School for the fall. She had planned on visiting Nairobi, Kenya, to see her father, mother and brother, but her father, the consul general at the U.S. Embassy there, said he’d be traveling to the U.S. in a couple weeks and would see her then.
“It probably saved my life,” Bartley told ABC News this week.
Her father, Julian Bartley, and brother, Julian Bartley Jr., who was interning at the embassy, were killed in the bombing — two of 12 Americans among the dead in twin attacks on the U.S. missions in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The blasts by al-Qaida operatives killed 224 in total and wounded more than 4,500 — among the deadliest terror attacks to target Americans before the Sept. 11 attacks.
But for Bartley, losing her dad and brother also launched a lifelong mission — lobbying for protection and support for American diplomats and their families and pursuing justice for the killing of half her family.
For some of the victims of the 1998 embassy bombings, a sense of justice appears as close now as it ever could be.
Under an agreement signed with the U.S. one month ago, Sudan’s government has agreed to pay $335 million to the victims and families for its role harboring the al-Qaida operatives that masterminded the attack. Abu Muhammad al Masri, al-Qaida’s No. 2, who was indicted for helping plan the attacks, was also reportedly assassinated by Israeli operatives at U.S. request in Iran this past August — 22 years to the day after the attacks — The New York Times reported this month.
ABC News has not confirmed al Masri’s killing. The Iranian government denied the report, while al-Qaida has remained quiet.
But his reported death and the deal for compensation are a sign that the victims of the embassy attacks haven’t been forgotten, according to Riz Khaliq.
“I am happy that our government didn’t give up on trying to hold people accountable for what they perpetrated against us. I’m grateful for that,” said Khaliq, who was a 27-year-old economics officer at the time of the bombing.
On a brief assignment in Nairobi before his posting in South Africa, Khaliq was across the street from the embassy at a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell and Kenya’s trade minister when the blast ripped through the buildings. Khaliq carried Bushnell to safety, his own face bloodied and dirtied by debris.
Twenty-two years later, his heart still races as he tells the story. Like his unease with loud noises, it’s a physical manifestation of the horrors of that day, a reminder as real as the shards of glass he still occasionally finds in his skin.
The compensation deal in particular “acknowledges the suffering and the pain that we have been victim to, the 20-plus years that we have been living with and our families have been living with and dealing with,” he told ABC News. “Absolutely it would help. But it doesn’t mean that it erases that pain or suffering.”
That suffering is every day for Ellen Richards, who was also on a temporary assignment in Nairobi when the blasts blinded her — although she has found one benefit of blindness. “I don’t eat as much,” she said laughing. “I can’t see the food on the plate, so I don’t eat it — and it’s so wonderful.”
Like Bartley and Khaliq, Richards has found deep meaning in the attacks. But she said she never searched for justice.
“I don’t worry about that. I didn’t worry about that. I always figured that God will take care of them. They will get the justice they deserve because they took everyday people who went to work for their government … and [they] stopped us from breathing,” she said.
Richards, who got married two years ago at 72 years old, added, “Life is good. You just can’t demand things. God loves each of us, and he knows us each by name, and because he loves us, he’ll give us what we need.”
Still, robbed of years of work because of her blindness, Richards said money from the settlement deal would help. But while Sudan has transferred the funds to a third-party bank, the money will be held in escrow until the U.S. Congress passes necessary legislation.
The deal stipulates that the victims won’t receive any compensation until Congress restores Sudan’s “sovereign immunity,” a legal term that means it can’t be sued as a sovereign state. Sudan lost its immunity when it was designated as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993. But President Donald Trump lifted the designation last month as part of a historic deal where Sudan and Israel agreed to move toward diplomatic ties.
But the legislation is being held up by two Democrat senators who say it threatens Sept. 11 victims’ right to sue Sudan. While the government has never been found responsible for those attacks, restoring Sudan’s sovereign immunity would limit 9/11 victims’ ability to sue for any alleged role.
Advocates are now racing against the clock to end their opposition. If the money isn’t paid out in months, it will return to Sudan — and Bartley, Khaliq, Richards and others won’t get a penny, but a strong sense of betrayal.
“It makes me really upset and puts a bitter taste in my mouth because it’s our own government that’s frankly holding this up,” said Khaliq. “It’s nobody else but our own elected officials who are supposed to look out for us as citizens, but instead they’re playing politics.”
Even if the deal is approved in this lame-duck session, he and Bartley agreed there’s no coming “closure.” For Bartley, that’s in part because her important work will continue beyond the Nairobi embassy community whose lives were transformed that day.
“In no way will my work as an advocate be complete or over because the very nature of the work that diplomats do and who they are is not very well known to the average American,” let alone members of Congress, Bartley said.
“There will be plenty of work to do … to raise the visibility, the value and the importance of our diplomatic corps and others who serve at our U.S. embassies,” she said, like her family did in Colombia, Spain, Israel, South Korea and Kenya.
Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.