KHARAYEB/ZRARIEH, Lebanon: For the second day in a row, the Sidon village of Kharayeb Friday remained in a state of shock over the loss of Bilal Dheini, his wife, and their three children – Rayan, Olivia, and Malek – who were 11, 8, and 4 years old respectively.
Dheini and his family were among at least 19 Lebanese citizens on board an Air Algerie flight that crashed in Mali Thursday. Of 110 passengers and six members of crew, there were no survivors.
Throngs of people made their way to the Dheini family home Friday to offer their condolences and exchange information about the crash. Discussions centered on the circumstances of the incident and the need for Middle East Airlines to establish direct flights between the Horn of Africa – where there is a large Lebanese expat community – and Beirut.
Lebanese authorities called on relatives to come forward for DNA testing following an announcement by French President Francois Hollande that although the plane’s black box was found, none of the passengers survived the crash.
Teary-eyed, Bilal’s sister Ibtisam Dheini stared intently at a picture of her brother and his family.
“My brother was coming [to Lebanon] for the engagement of several of his nephews and to spend Eid al-Fitr with us,” she said as she began to weep.
“He went and took the Eid and the joy with him.”
“We were waiting for him and his children. He hadn’t sent a recent photo of them on the basis that they were coming with him and he wanted us to see them in person.”
According to Dheini, Bilal had intended to resettle in Lebanon.
His brother Abbas told The Daily Star that he had been preparing to go to the airport minutes before news came of the disappearance of the aircraft.
“We were faced with the reality of not knowing what to do, and we became preoccupied with getting information about what happened,” he said.
After media outlets began breaking the news, they made their way to the airport, just to be sure.
“For us, Bilal is still missing ... although, 24 hours later, it seems that the matter is done for and he is now with God,” Abbas said.
Kharayeb has already lost 15 other residents to aviation disasters. Some died in two particularly notable incidents: In 2003, a charter flight crashed during takeoff from Cotonou, killing 151 of 163 passengers, most of them Lebanese, while 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.
For Abbas, the issue is now about finding a solution to prevent such accidents from happening in the first place.
“Are we not able to find a way to prevent people from going onboard unsafe flights?” he asked. “We want a solution to the problem before it happens. The solution is easy, and it is that Lebanese airlines should reach all countries where expats are.”
In reaction to the plane disaster, the former head of the Lebanese community in Africa, Mohammad al-Dur, said he had sent a letter to Speaker Nabih Berri accusing him of having “forgotten” the Lebanese diaspora in the continent.
In the letter, Dur reminded Berri that in 2002 he had warned him, former President Emile Lahoud and assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of the sufferings of Lebanese expats in Africa, specifically in Benin, Togo, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali.
“These five nations can be combined into one region and an air route for the Middle East Airlines can be organized,” he told The Daily Star.
“The real Lebanese expatriate presence is in Africa, because the expatriates there remain committed to their land, they are keen on communicating with it and pumping their money into its economy and investing in and constructing its future.”
Not too far away, in the Sidon village of Zrarieh, a similar tragedy was unfolding.
Mohammad Faisal Akhdar had planned to spend Eid al-Fitr at home with his family, but when his father hurried to pick him up at the airport, Mohammad wasn’t there. The plane never made it to Beirut, an airport worker explained to his father.
According to his uncle Wajih, Mohammad had been working in Burkina Faso for the last two years.
“We were looking for him to get engaged to a good bride,” he added.
Like other families affected by the crash, the Akhdars were confused. They had heard no information other than what was being circulated in the media.
“Everyone has a different story, either they found the plane’s wreckage or they didn’t, or they were looking for it. Evidently they sent an official Lebanese delegation to follow up, but no one has called us yet or reassured us or told us anything new.”