By Dalila Mahdawi and Wassim Mroueh | The Daily Star
As investigations continue into the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash on Monday, relations between the Ethiopian and Lebanese communities seem to be under strain.
Ethiopian Airlines flight ET409 crashed into the Mediterranean Sea just minutes after taking off from Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport during a heavy thunderstorm early morning. Some 90 passengers were aboard, including 54 Lebanese and 30 Ethiopian nationals, seven of whom were crew members. No survivors have been found, though a number of bodies have been pulled from the water.
Officials from both countries have remained diplomatic in the face of the disaster, with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Health Minister Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh paying their condolences at the Ethiopian Consulate. But not everyone has been so courteous.
After Lebanon’s Transport and Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi suggested Tuesday pilot error could have caused the crash, several Lebanese media outlets carried stories inferring Ethiopia was to blame.
“The aviation discipline is such that when there is an accident, you don’t rush to conclusions, you have to wait for the investigation to be completed,” Ethiopian Airlines CEO Girma Wake told reporters on Tuesday following Aridi’s comments. “Rushing remarks, I don’t think … helps anybody.”
Message boards on Lebanese and Ethiopian websites have seen a flurry of activity, with tersely-worded accusations being hurled on either side. One commentator on the Al-Arabiya website said they believed “the Lebanese government is looking for a scapegoat” to cover up for poor airport safety.
On Monday night a regional broadcaster conducted a live interview outside the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, where bodies of the passengers are being taken. A bereaved Ethiopian who accidently walked into shot was quickly dragged out of view by the television crew.
At the hospital grounds Thursday, a group of Ethiopian women gathered to wait for news of their friends. They initially said they had been treated well by the Lebanese following the plane crash but later said they were being ignored. “There are too many problems here,” said one woman who wished to be identified as Kelile. “Many of our friends aren’t being allowed to come to the hospital. The employer of one of our friends didn’t even tell her that her sister had been onboard.”
There are around 20,000 Ethiopian migrant workers in Lebanon, mostly women who work as live-in house-keepers or nannies. According to many of those gathered outside the hospital, many of those who perished on Monday were workers who were returning home after finishing their contracts in Lebanon. Others were escaping abusive employers. “The friend I had on the plane was just released from prison,” one woman told The Daily Star, declining to identify herself or her friend. Her friend spent nine months in prison because her papers were not in order.
Pathologist Ahmad al-Muqdad told OTV the Lebanese would accept DNA samples from the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut to help identify Ethiopian victims on board, but did not say whether genetic data would be sent to Ethiopia.
“I had friends on the plane,” said Ethiopian freelance worker Desta (not her real name). “They worked hard in Lebanon and some weren’t treated well by their employers. It makes me so sad to think how much they suffered here and then, on their way home, to have this happen.”
Desta said she’d heard from other members of her community that relatives of Ethiopian passengers were put in a separate waiting room at Beirut’s international airport following the crash. “It’s as if we’ll contaminate them [the Lebanese],” she said. “But everyone is suffering. Don’t the Ethiopian families deserve respect too?”