January 28th, 2010
08:45 PM ET

Equal in doom

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/28/art.ethiopian.prayer.final.jpg caption="A picture dedicated to all victims of the crash entitled, 'Ethiopian Prayer,' by Joumana Medlej, an illustrator, comic author and photographer."]

Octavia Nasr | BIO
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Editor, Mideast Affairs

“I told him ‘God be with you’ and I went back to sleep.”

Zeinab Seklawi didn’t know this was the last time she would talk to her son Yasser. She didn’t know the 24-year-old was boarding a plane that would take him and 89 others to their doom a few short minutes after takeoff.

The first headline out of Lebanon early Monday morning read, “Ethiopian Airlines plane with 85 passengers crashes into sea after takeoff from Beirut.”

In my head I pictured in a plane laden with Ethiopian migrant workers returning home to their families after a round of duty. Lebanon, like the rest of the Middle East, employs thousands of migrants especially from Southeast Asia and parts of Africa as domestic helpers. These workers, fleeing poverty in their home countries and looking for better livelihoods, end up working long, hard hours often under abusive circumstances.

Each time I fly through the Beirut airport, I see clusters of them either at immigration or at the gates waiting for their flights, segregated from the rest of the flying population as if they’re a different species.

When I first heard the news, the image of two giggling women I had seen on my last trip kept haunting me. They were Africans and veiled. I looked at them and smiled as they looked so happy to get on that flight. At the time I thought about what it must have felt like for them to be headed home to their families after being gone for so long.

Upon hearing the news of the crashed flight, I thought about the tragedy of those on board who were trying to make it home, their loved ones anticipating their return and children excited about goodies they might have taken back. The imagery was so sad and relentless, it made me sick.

We quickly learned that the flight had 51 Lebanese nationals on board in addition to 23 Ethiopians, two Britons and citizens from Canada, Iraq, Russia, Syria, Turkey and France. Government-owned Ethiopian Airlines is one of the largest carriers in Africa, serving Europe and three other continents. Many of the non-Ethiopian passengers were on the flight to transit in Addis Ababa to various destinations.

There were a few prominent Lebanese media and business personalities on the plane and their names were flashed quickly. News of the youngest passengers on the flight, a 2-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy, was also quick to come out. The wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon was on board as well. That news spread like wild fire. How about the others? In this age of social media and citizen journalism, a Facebook page was set up and its followers grew from hundreds to tens of thousands within hours. People posted pictures of their loved ones and introduced them to the masses.

This is where we learned about Fouad Lakkis, a teacher who was loved and will be sorely missed. “Our teacher !!!!! our best friend !!!! My uncle !!!! I damn miss you like hell khalo,” his nephew wrote.

It’s also on this page that we learn how much Fares Zebian meant to one of his employees who wrote, “I lost the dad, the brother, the friend. Not only the best boss ever! Im gonna miss u so muchhhhhhhhhhh L(((((“

The outpour of emotions was so strong that some people felt compelled to write something even if they didn’t know the person. In honor of Yasser Mahdi a man wrote, “Although I don’t know him, I’m emotionally distraught about his loss. May you and all those who were with you rest in peace LL”

The photo of two Ethiopian women in mourning drew some comments in support of the migrant community of domestic workers in Lebanon. One person said, “This is just not right…..from poverty to working in order to survive their families and then death….”

Some people went to this page to find closure. ET 409 passenger Farid Saad Moussa was introduced as the father of a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and an 11-month-old and this caption, “found alive… in our hearts.”

On Twitter, the scene was more immediate and urgent. People shared information and emotions all at once. Some expressed sorrow for the loss, while others said they knew people on that flight and were very concerned. Accounts of those who were at the airport ready to board flights out of the same airport were chilling. Twitter became a community, support group, and a news feed all mixed into one. The scene was so new, it drew the attention of local media. The following day, As-Safir newspaper reported on that community under the headline, “The Ethiopian airliner tragedy on Twitter: Users contribute to coverage along with media personalities.”

All the while, families of passengers on the doomed plane rushed to the Beirut international airport and the doors of the VIP lounge welcomed them and Lebanese officials were on hand to try and comfort them. It was a tough scene for everyone there. Lebanese media reported on what quickly became a tough scene to cover. They talked to weeping family members and recorded in pictures and ink their agony. Newspaper headlines read, “Waking nightmare haunts those left behind” and “Grief grips those left behind.”

Speeches were made; fingers pointed to the bad stormy weather, the pilot not responding to directions, the control tower allowing the flight to take off in dangerous conditions; others turned to “God” to ask why.

As we reported the story, we kept looking for the employers of those Ethiopian workers, their friends or family members. On Ethiopian forums there was sorrow and there were updates. There was also a quick move to clear the Ethiopian Airlines name from any possibility of blame. On individual Facebook pages status updates read, “Its a sad night for Ethiopians we have lost a plane in Lebanon after take off with 92 passangers on board. Lets keep them in our prayer!!!!!!!” to “SAD DAY FOR ALL ETHIOPIANS!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and simply “I AM SOORY ABOUT THE ACCIDENT ON ETHIOPIAN AIRPLANE.”

The flight data recorder is now located and only 17 bodies were recovered. Families and friends wait for news of what happened and hope to recover all bodies and give them proper burials.

Ninety lives were lost in the blink of an eye. Ninety people. Did they giggle, did they chat, did they call a loved one for a last goodbye, or did they just wait anxiously to board that plane? Ninety people, with very different lives; different backgrounds and nationalities; uneven in the lives they lived, equal in death.

Filed under: 360º Follow • Global 360° • Octavia Nasr
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Liliane

    I read so many articles and blog posts so far about the #ET409, but urs really touched me the most. I really thought about those poor domestic workers who thought this plane was their ticket to freedom... Instead they died tragically. God help the families of this flight's victims

    January 28, 2010 at 5:06 pm |