May 13, 2007

Horror of Kenya Airways crash hits close to home

MBANGA PONGO, Cameroon - Our desire as journalists to reach the scene of a plane crash that killed 114 people in Cameroon last week was tempered by the fear of what we would find once we got there.

Any accident site is bound to be grisly.

But this one was worse than most after misguided search efforts took two days to locate the wreckage of the Kenya Airways Boeing 737-800 which went missing shortly after taking off from Douala airport late on May 4.

Tropical heat at the crash site, a fetid mangrove swamp surrounded by dense forest, meant bodies rotted quickly.

Reporters and photographers were granted access only after being made to wait six hours in the sweltering sun by Cameroonian soldiers who seemed more bent on asserting their authority than assisting the recovery mission.

International interest ran high because passengers from more than 20 countries were on board the stricken aircraft.

Among them was an Associated Press journalist Anthony Mitchell, a Nairobi-based correspondent returning home to Kenya after an assignment.

I did not know Mitchell, a Briton, but many friends and colleagues did and whenever the journalistic community loses one of its own there is a profound sense of loss and disbelief that goes beyond normal sadness at the human tragedy.

Journalists working in Africa often face risks.

Bouncing along on the back of a rickety truck with rebels crossing a remote desert war zone, or sitting on a box of grenades in a dilapidated military plane bumping through the air high above a jungle is part of our job.

We frequently cover stories that involve death and sometimes use grisly humour to cope.

But there were no jokes on this day.

Need to see

Wading through knee-deep mud, clinging to dripping vines or using hacked off tree branches as walking sticks, local and foreign journalists struggled to the crash site.

The smell hit us first. The overpowering odour of spilled jet fuel and decomposition made several journalists sick. Others fainted.

More than once, I wondered why such a ghoulish mission was

necessary. The argument given to obstructive soldiers was that it is important for people to see what happened.

But I asked myself whether this was true. What could be gained from seeing this?

The answer came in the quiet presence of Kamal Shah, a 32-year-old Kenyan whose wife, Meera, 30, was on the plane on her way home from a short business trip.

With family members banned from the crash site, Shah posed as a journalist to gain access.

As we busied ourselves with our work, Shah slowly and silently picked his way through the stinking mud, twisted metal, tree roots, scattered clothing, a dead snake and other debris.

After several hours, he came up to me, covered in mud and sweating.

Somehow, he’d recovered his wife’s wallet from the mess.

“It means a lot just to find this, to see her smile on her photo ID,” he said, his lips and hands trembling.

People do want to see, in order to understand. Still, some things are best not photographed.

Among the debris were private items -- smiling family pictures, birthday cards, intimate letters, and identity documents -- all too heartbreakingly personal to show.

Working as a photographer allows a certain remove from the subject matter, as we try to capture images that tell the story.

But at one point, while reporting in details to our Dakar office for a print story, I looked down to find my foot submerged in muck and standing on part of a corpse.

I was revolted, but even more, I felt guilty.

Who was it? A mother, a crew member, someone travelling to visit their lover? There’s no way ever to know.

Mud washes off at the end of the day.

But thoughts of our own mortality do not.


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