Gone but not forgotten

Posted by Firdose Moonda

Simon Bruty/Getty ImagesKalusha Bwayla pays his respects to his Zambian teammates in the days following the 1993 Zambian air disaster. Sunday marked the 20 year anniversary of that fateful flight.

Sadness hung thick in Lusaka's air for more than one reason yesterday.

The 20-year anniversary of the death of the 18 players who perished off the Gabonese coast was commemorated with a friendly match against Zimbabwe, which Zambia won 2-0, and a small ceremony at their incomplete burial ground at the Independence Stadium. Their families mourned both those whom were lost and the government's refusal to release a report into exactly what happened.

When that will happen, no one knows. Zambia's army chaplain, Colonal Reverend Vincent Mwenya has asked that the relatives "move on". Those closest to the late footballers regard that as the ultimate insult and explained that until they get closure, they will not be satisfied.

"Look at how long the Hillsborough report took concerning the deaths of the Liverpool fans," Martin Mutale, the brother of striker Kelvin Mutale said. "That incident happened 24 years ago but justice was delivered and the case is the same with us. Though 20 years has past, we need to know what happened."

Although the reason for the Air Force plane exploding after it stopped to refuel has not been disclosed, the incident and its aftermath received floods of media attention over the years. Various disputes and tributes have collided and not all of them have been pleasant for those left behind.

Nine years after the crash, in 2002, the families had still not been compensated. The previous year, they voiced their grievances on the anniversary, saying the infrastructure of the memorial was sub-standard and the wait for funds had gone on too long.

Their lawyer then, Sakwiba Sikota, explained that under normal circumstances, reports on accidents are delivered within three years. He also revealed he had paid for transport, accommodation and food for those families who came from outside the capital city for the ceremony.

In March 2002, Zambia's vice-president said they were waiting on Gabon to complete their part of the investigation. The next month, the families threatened to take the Zambian government to the International Court of Justice to demand monies.

It only took two weeks after that for the government to agree on an amount. After a High Court hearing, they came up with a figure of USD $4 million, using a formula to calculate the earning potential of the players who died.

They were assumed to have been able to continue playing until they were 33 and to have coaching opportunities until the age of 55. Some families claimed the money was not enough to support them and their growing children, and had their footballer been alive, they would be much better off. But in the end, they have had to accept their lot. What they cannot settle for is the memory of the dead fading and the secret of their passing never being revealed.

Since then, various commemorative events have been held on the anniversaries but the administration has made it clear they will not be able to provide anything more. This year, they took their sternest stance when the families complained that they were so neglected, they wanted to exhume the bodies and rebury them at sites closer to where they lived.

Sport and youth minister Chishimba Kambwili said the families could do as they pleased. "We are not stopping them from exhuming the remains of their beloved ones if they want to do so. What else do they want? Their benefits were paid and Government cannot be commemorating the memorial every year, it's up to the families to do that," he said.

The Zambian Football ederation (FAZ) has made a commitment to hold an event every five years in remembrance of the victims. For some, neither that, nor anything else, will be enough. For others, Zambia's victory in the 2012 African Nations' Cup helped numb the pain of losing their golden generation of footballers.

"God only knows what they could have achieved," Kalusha Bwalya, the only survivor of the disaster (because he was taking a flight from Holland instead of his home country) and current FAZ president said. While fans were left only wondering what the footballers could have achieved, the families were left without much more.

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