SRIFA/BEIRUT: The last time Amina Daher spoke to her brother Fayez was just after the plane carrying his wife and three kids took off from Burkina Faso heading toward Algeria, where they were to continue on to Lebanon to spend the Eid al-Fitr holiday with his family. The four Dahers never arrived.
“I didn’t believe it when I heard the news,” she said, teary-eyed and surrounded by mourning relatives in the family home in the southern village of Srifa. “We heard on the news that the plane had disappeared. We don’t know anything.”
Her brother's wife Randa Bassma and their three children, Ali, 17, Salah, 15, and Shaimaa, 5 were among 116 passengers, including at least 19 Lebanese, aboard Air Algerie flight 5017, which crashed in northern Mali Thursday after disappearing from aviation authorities’ radar. Families of victims expressed a mix of grief and disbelief.
“They emigrated 20 years ago,” Amina said. “I hadn’t seen them in four years. They were coming to spend Eid al-Fitr [in Lebanon], but they were lost with that plane. I call on the Lebanese authorities to form an emergency team to find out where they are,” she said before she was overcome with emotion. “It’s a tragedy for the family,” wailed Fayez’s aunt, Hamda.
Burkina Faso is home to a large Lebanese expatriate community, and many Lebanese residing there return to Lebanon to spend the summer months and holidays with family.
Srifa was not the only south Lebanon town in mourning. Haris, the ancestral village of Munji Hasan, his wife, Najwa Zayyat, and their children, Mohammad Rida, Hussein, Hasan, and Ruqiya mourned the loss of the big family.
Dozens of local residents gathered at the Hasan home to pay their respects and offer support to the grieving family, who have resigned themselves to the fact that their loved ones will likely not be found alive.
The family rallied enough, however, to send a representative to Mali Thursday in order to monitor the investigation and recovery mission.
Radwan Khalil, a friend of the family, complained that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates was not following up as it should.
“While we don’t hold the state responsible – technical failures can occur on any flight – but the state bears partial responsibility for following up on the matter and keeping us informed,” he said. “It’s clear they are lost, and we are following the news on social media,” he added.
Not everyone was ready to give up on the chance that some passengers might have survived.
Joseph al-Hajj, 46, is another of those missing with the plane. A relative who spoke to The Daily Star said the family is “waiting for an official statement that all passengers aboard the plane are dead,” adding that it was “premature” to assume none had survived.
The relative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the family would not be accepting condolences until they had confirmation of their loved one’s fate.
According to his brother Elias, Joseph was a businessman who owned a company in Burkina Faso and traveled frequently between Africa and Lebanon. He lives in Zalka and is married to Loraine al-Hajj, with whom he has three children. He was travelling alone.
Hajj and Fadi Rustom, another passenger on the doomed flight, have both spent more than 25 years in Africa, Aintoura’s Mayor Georges Abdo al-Hajj told The Daily Star. Both Hajj and Rustom hail from the Metn region village.
Abbas Dheini, brother of passenger Bilal Dheini, condemned airport officials in Lebanon for not providing them with the necessary information. He said the Beirut airport referred families to the Air Algerie offices abroad.
“We kept calling and they kept on telling us to call back,” he said. “Even though Lebanon’s airport does not regulate the flight, it should have coordinated with Air Algerie to follow up on the Lebanese passengers.”
Bilal Dheini was accompanied by his wife, whose name was not released, and four of their children. The family reportedly hold dual German as well as Lebanese citizenship.
Other victims included Mohammad Faisal Akhdar from the Zahrani district of Sidon, and Omar Ballan, who hails from the Kesrouan town of Ghazir and the owner of Wonderful Life, a company in Burkina Faso that specializes in consumer electronics.
Lebanon has been struck by aviation disaster before. In 2003, a charter flight crashed during takeoff from Cotonou, killing 151 of 163 passengers, most of them Lebanese. In 2010, all 90 people aboard an Ethiopian Airlines plane were killed when the aircraft plunged into the sea shortly after taking off from Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam announced Thursday that he was coordinating with Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk to send a delegation to Africa in order to collect the remains of the deceased and follow up on the investigation.
The delegation will include director general of the Department of Emigrants at the Foreign Ministry, Haitham Jomaa, and the secretary-general of the Higher Relief Commission, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Khair, as well as an officer from General Security.