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Terror victims recount stories for U.N. forum

September 10, 2008|Richard Boudreaux and Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — Naomi Kerongo choked with emotion in a U.N. conference hall Tuesday as she recounted her country's version of Sept. 11.

It was 10 years ago. Twin bombs, for which Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, destroyed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Kerongo, a Kenyan trade development officer at the time, was among the thousands wounded in the attacks. More than 200 died.

Survivors of similar traumas, summoned from around the world to the first U.N. symposium on the plight of terrorism victims, listened in silence as a tearful Kerongo described how her life fell apart after that.

She spent two years in a mental hospital, lost her job and her home, and now lives in a Nairobi slum -- a state of destitution she said is shared by many survivors of the attack in Kenya, which has no state-sponsored medical insurance.

"Nothing can take us back to the day before the bomb blast," she said. "But something can and must be done to answer our call for help."

The daylong forum was the cathartic starting point of a U.N. push to coordinate a global effort that would assist those wounded, disabled, emotionally scarred, impoverished or bereft of loved ones in the wake of terrorist acts.

Although such hot spots as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia were not represented, U.N. officials flew 18 specially invited victims representing every continent to stress the universality of suffering from bombings, hostage taking and other violent acts.

Ashraf Khaled described losing his father, father-in-law and 25 other family members during a suicide bombing in Amman, Jordan, at his wedding reception in 2005. "Suddenly everything white turned red," he said.

Ben Borgia, an Australian, poured forth emotions he has felt since his mother and 13-year-old sister perished in the 2002 nightclub bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali.

And Aleta Gasinova said her town of Beslan, Russia, was still traumatized by the 2004 Chechen rebel attack on their school, which left 186 children dead along with Gasinova's father, the school's director.

"The list keeps growing longer, bringing with it greater pain and grief," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the gathering. "Your stories of how terrorism has affected your lives are our strongest argument why it can never be justified."

Several ideas emerged, including an international bill of rights for terrorism victims and a global fund for assisting them, drawing on assets seized from terrorist groups.

Among the advocates of a bill of rights was former hostage Ingrid Betancourt, the best known of the panelists. Her proposal calls for a centralized database to catalog and publicize victims' needs.

"It's the best way to fight against indifference and the risk of being forgotten," said Betancourt, a Colombian politician with Colombian and French citizenship. Colombia's military rescued her and 14 other hostages from leftist guerrillas in July, six years after her kidnapping.

Ban called Betancourt's proposal "a very good idea."

Any action the U.N. took could inflame political sensitivities over what, exactly, is terrorism, a phenomenon the world body has failed in several attempts to define.

Although officials said there was consensus for using the crimes covered by 16 international legal agreements recognized by the United Nations as a basis for choosing Tuesday's panelists, not everyone was satisfied with the selections.

The father of an Israeli girl killed by a suicide bomber was invited, but no Palestinian victims, even though the Palestinian Authority proposed several names. Arab ambassadors complained that the selection process, which tilted toward victims of Islamic militant groups, was secretive.

U.N. officials said the timing of the symposium had nothing to do with the anniversary of the attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives on American soil seven years ago Thursday. But the panelists included Carie Lemack, an American whose mother died aboard a plane that struck the World Trade Center and said she came to hear about other countries' "9/11 experiences."

Rachel North recalled reaching out to a stranger's hand as she lay bleeding on the floor of a crowded London Underground train that was bombed in the summer of 2007.

"In the dark you can't tell whose hand you hold, what race, what religion they are," she said. "You know only you are fellow passengers whose survival depends on each other's cooperation and calmness and compassion. I have held on to that lesson ever since."

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boudreaux@latimes.com

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

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