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Ethiopian Airlines – a source of national pride and now, international mourning

OP-ED: Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 bound for Nairobi Kenya Sunday. The airline CEO confirmed that none of the 157 passengers from 35 different countries survived. The crash is a tragedy on many levels, not just because the immense loss of life, the airline is also the source of great pride for Ethiopians.

When the planes come in for landing and take off from the Bole International Airport they hug the Addis Ababa skyline, and the southernmost part of the capital where the notorious Kaliti Prison, is located. I spent 438 days there.

Locked inside at night we could hear the roaring airplane engines. During the day we could see the thin lines of condensation somewhere up there against the blue and free sky. Many of my fellow prisoners knew the difference between airplane models just by sound. An Airbus A350 sounds different than a Boeing 777, or a Q400 Bombardier, on its way to some smaller airport in the area. The Warden had a model plane with the Ethiopian Airlines logotype on display in his office.

Ethiopian Airlines offered a source of national pride. When the news broke that they would get its first Dreamliner 787, in 2012, hundreds of pairs of eyes squinted toward the sky to watch it come in for landing the very first time. With its massive wingspan and radius, the Dreamliner could reach far off destinations such as Sao Paolo in Brazil and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia as nonstop flights.

“D” for Dreamliner also put the “D” in developing country; a sign that Ethiopia was country that dared to think big. In a time when other national airlines on the African continent were struggling because of corruption and shortsightedness, Ethiopian Airlines stood for something very important—a dream of a united Africa.

Gazing upward at the “silver birds” making criss-cross patterns across the African sky, gave everyone a chance to forget the wars, the poverty, the starvation and the oppression and feel pride.

In a situation where efforts of pan African unity had failed politically, Ethiopian Airlines also stood to unite the continent and take back the power from British Airways and Air France, of the old colonial powers.

For me who travel a lot for work, seeing an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft at an airport was a constant reminder of the threats and discomfort I endured in the country where I was convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, and later deported from. Since 2012, I’ve spent thousands and thousands on detours to avoid Ethiopian airspace, in order to reach destinations in Africa. And even if it has filled me with a sense of joy watching all-female flight crews every year on March 8, for me it’s always been “dictatorship liners”.

Coincidentally, just two days before the crash when I was at Arlanda International Airport, I watched how an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft got its wings deiced. Surprisingly I felt some kind of optimism, maybe even happiness over the Ethiopian reform process, the pardon of wrongly jailed journalists and the peace accord with Eritrea. With this in the back of my mind, I also noticed that they now fly Stockholm—Addis Ababa and also have a direct flight to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. It struck me that Ethiopian Airlines had become a market leader on the African continent and considered a trustworthy travel option with good safety scorecard.

And then I wake up on Sunday morning to the news that a Boeing 737 crashed just a few minutes after takeoff. All 157 people aboard—dead and gone. Aboard where people of at least 33 nationalities, a telltale of the diverse clientele opting to for the airline as their firsthand travel choice in Africa. Some of the passengers were on their way to the weeklong United Nations Environment Assembly that was scheduled to begin Monday.

At the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, heartbroken family members waited for information about friends and relatives who would never arrive. Desperate fingers pressing the ring button to their most cherished contacts, to numbers nobody would ever answer again.

Instead a global grieving process began for the families of the dead including Kenyans, Ethiopians, Canadians, Chinese, Italians, Americans, French, English, Egyptians, Germans, Indian citizens, Slovakians, Austrians, Russians and Swedes.

I watched how Ethiopians worldwide swapped their avatars for a black wing, and how most political leaders in East Africa offered their condolences to the mourners. For them it is also a national trauma that will take time to heal, while the wreckage will be cleaned up, and an accident commission will be appointed which—hopefully—will offer answers as to how it could happen. The eyes of many are already directed towards the manufacturer Boeing rather than against the source of national pride and their own airline.

The “silver birds” will lift again.

They will also offer that pride for free and imprisoned Ethiopians again, as the roaring engines as Ethiopian Airlines climb altitude over Addis Ababa.


Martin Schibbye is editor-in-chief at Blankspot.se Blankspot is a crowdfunded digital only platform for long form journalism, reported from around the world. Martin Schibbye was imprisoned in Ethiopia in 2011. Schibbye, and his colleague were originally sentenced to 11 years in prison for “terrorist crimes” but pardoned in 2012 after spending 438-days in prison. Many of the fellow prisoners were other journalists and human rights advocates. 


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