I have been thinking why the news of the plane crash in Ethiopia and the deaths of aid workers among the passengers hit me so hard. A day after the March 10 crash, I realized what it was. I saw myself among them in the hours leading to the crash. I am sure many of my friends and colleagues who worked in that region felt the same and saw themselves, too.
Like the aid workers among the victims in that crash, we would have found ourselves at that airport which served as a hub for countries in the Horn of Africa. We would have just flown in from neighboring capitals of South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland, or domestic origins within Ethiopia, and from there proceed to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and a variety of destinations outside the African continent – destinations as varied as Sweden and Sri Lanka or Canada and Indonesia. We would have sat there, waiting for our next flight. Meanwhile, like any other travellers whiling our stopover time, we would end up chatting among ourselves.
Mostly, our chats will be about where we are going. The bulk of us are off to our RnR or home leaves and just like the passengers on that ill fated plane, home for some will be East Africa, Central Africa, West Africa, Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia, East Asia, Australia, Eastern Europe. We will then do a tourism pitch for our countries by inviting our colleagues to spend their next RnR there – “Zen, you should see the mountains in Kyrgystan!”, my friend will excitedly extend his invite to which I would have replied “Ah but only if you agree to visit the lagoons in El Nido”. Others would be off to a training or conference while others would have just ended their mission and are now going to their next assignment.
Now even though we are told to switch off from work when going on holiday since that is precisely the purpose why the office is spending for our trip, this is impossible to observe. So, we find ourselves throwing random questions about what happened in between our six or eight-week RnR cycles.
“Dude, did you hear about what happened to that NGO compound in the northern region? Some militia tried to barge into their compound to take stuff from their warehouse”
“I just returned from a protection mission and when I got off the plane, I saw other aid workers heading out and they were giving me this ‘why is this fool coming here when we are all supposed to be evacuating’ kind of look.”
“Chica, have you turned in the draft briefing for the next cluster meeting?”
“How did the distribution of NFI assistance go? How are we doing on the schedule for building the shelters?”
Thankfully, we will go back to holiday talk – “how many kilos of sausage and cheese are you planning to squeeze in your luggage when you return from leave, Klaus?” The answer would be “I will fill the suitcase with it – no clothes, just sausage and cheese – if only the customs people stopped thinking of me as a sausage smuggler”.
We would be huddled in our own groups of friends and colleagues and you can tell us apart from the other groups huddled in that terminal because we won’t dress the part of being tourists even though we are headed for a holiday. Nor would we look like CEOs in business suits. Some of us, however, would look like we simply stepped out of our tents that same morning, washed our face, grabbed our backpacks and asked the compound driver to take us to the airport (this would be me).
We would also be looking more relaxed than the tourists who are probably visiting the region for the first time. We on the other hand have been flying through this airport every six to eight weeks. So, you will probably see us drinking Ethiopian coffee and munching on our last plate of Beef Tibs before we fly. We all agree – at least the non-vegetarians among us – that every human being must try an Ethiopian meat dish at least once in their life.
One hour, two hours, and three hours, and with each passing hour, the group becomes smaller as one by one, as each of our flights is called, until the last one boards his or her flight. We give each other hugs, kisses, and fist bumps, and then say to each other “see you in a week or two”.
This is how those aid workers among the passengers of that tragic flight most likely spent their last few hours alive. “See you in a week or two”, their colleagues will never get to hear them say this again. They will never have those chats during stopovers. They will never see them back at their compound again. This realization is what truly made me sad.
I am on a long home leave but my thoughts are with the passengers on that flight and colleagues in the profession who continue to labor in hardship posts in East Africa and other difficult regions. Please join me in paying homage to them. Let’s all give them a fist bump.
(Zainuding Malang is a lawyer from Mindanao who spent years on deployment in acute emergencies in East Africa and the Middle East. Before that, he was the founding head of a human rights and civilian protection organization in Mindanao and was one of the five members of the peace process monitoring body. He is currently on a break and shuttles between Cotabato and Manila.)