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Families press for memorial at Ethiopian Airlines crash site

Ethiopian Airlines
Women mourn during a memorial ceremony for the seven crew members who died in the Ethiopian Airlines accident at the Ethiopian Pilot Association Club in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 11, 2019.. PHOTO | AFP 

Nairobi

Four months after his younger sister Samya died in an Ethiopian Airlines crash with 156 others, Adnaan Stumo sifted soil through his fingers at the site where the plane came down.

His hand closed around a human jawbone.

“I just looked at these teeth and I tried to remember my sister’s teeth,” said the 26-year-old American, who handed over the remains to police for identification.

Stumo is not alone in finding bones and other remains at the site, about 60 km (37 miles) east of Addis Ababa, where the Boeing 737-MAX slammed into the ground with such force that only fragments of those who died can be recovered. Another victims’ relative told Reuters they had found remains in April.

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'Graveyard'

Many of the relatives are now pressing for the farmland where the plane crashed to be turned into a permanent memorial.

“Out of respect to the dead, the crash site should be treated as a graveyard,” said Adrian Toole, a Briton whose daughter Joanna died in the crash, the second involving a Boeing 737-MAX in the space of five months.

Dozens of families are suing Boeing after preliminary reports into the crash in Ethiopia and the Lion Air incident in Indonesia, which killed 189 people, showed an automated system erroneously pointed the planes’ noses down repeatedly after take-off.

Relatives also want the process used to certify the new Boeing model examined by the US Federal Aviation Authority.

Some families will demonstrate outside the US Department of Transportation on Tuesday, the six-month anniversary of the Ethiopian crash, to demand greater accountability by the US authorities, said Nadia Milleron, Samya’s mother.

Boeing has offered $100 million to support victims’ families, paid independently of any court cases. Legal heirs of the victims should receive about $145,000 each.

“We continue to assess a variety of ways to assist the families and affected communities. This includes working to honour those lives lost. We’ll provide updates as this work progresses,” said Boeing spokesman Peter Pedraza, adding that the Ethiopian authorities were responsible for the site.

Identifying remains

The Ethiopian government referred questions to the airline, which did not respond to queries about any plans for a memorial but said it had repeatedly searched the site for remains.

“We have done repeated sweeping activity at the crash site before the rainy season,” said airline spokesman Asrat Begashaw. “We are always open to discuss with victims’ families to make sure they are satisfied with what we are doing in this regard.”

In Ethiopia, some families have formed a committee, which was registered with the government last week, to push for the creation of a memorial park for victims in Addis Ababa and for preserving the crash site with a suitable memorial.

Committee member Bayihe Demissie, who lost his wife Elsabet, said the group wanted to contact families abroad who might wish to visit Ethiopia or be involved in creating the memorials.

“We want somewhere where people can bring their families,” he said. “Everybody is welcome. We are all grieving together.”

Unpaved track

The fields near Gara-bokka village where the plane came down are now fenced off by barbed wire and guarded by police. The bumpy, unpaved track to the site is often impassable when rains fall, usually from March to June and around September.

Personal items and remains, identified by DNA tests, are still being returned to families.

Families have to search a catalogue of photographs to identify books, baby clothes and other possessions. The authorities want to deliver items in a complete package rather than piecemeal, which could add to the grief of relatives.

Tears slid down the face of Konjit Shafi when the Ethiopian showed Reuters a picture on her phone of a white track suit she recognised.

“Don’t show it to him,” she said, speaking quietly in her home on the outskirts of the capital and nodding towards her elderly father, sat in a chair next to candles flickering in front of a portrait his son Sintayehu.

Difficult search

Others also find the search difficult. Joshua Babu, a Kenyan who lost his son and daughter-in-law, said it was too painful to check the photographs. He received his son’s passport and said that was enough.

“We have already reached a certain stage of healing,” he said. “Taking parts, this doesn’t really help me much.”

But he too wants a memorial at the crash site, so he can one day take his orphaned 20-month-old granddaughter there.

“She should have somewhere to go,” he said. “So we can say, look, that is your daddy’s name, your mother’s name.”

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