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Patrick Galey

Patrick Galey

Posted: January 27, 2010 07:09 AM

Flight ET409 Exposes Lebanon's Racist Underbelly

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Even though there were nine nationalities aboard the Boeing 737 jet which burst into flames and crashed into the sea minutes after taking off in a violent thunderstorm on Monday morning, the Lebanese, naturally enough, only concerned themselves with one.

54 Lebanese, almost all from the country's predominately Shiite southern region, are probably dead and the nation's outpouring of grief has been intense.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri declared Monday to be a national day of mourning for the victims; the education minister closed institutions for two days as a mark of respect.

The funeral of a southern businessman, who worked for a food import country in Angola, attracted international media attention, with veiled women throwing themselves on the coffin.

Distraught friends and relatives are still thronging a hospital in southern Beirut, waiting to identify mangled bodies being dragged from the eastern Mediterranean.

The search for the plane's black box is continuing, with families of victims waiting anxiously for clues on what befell flight ET409 in the seconds before disappearing off radar screens for good.

As with any air disaster in a post 9/11 world, terrorism has been raised as a possible cause, with several Lebanese dailies carrying uncorroborated allegations that the crash was the result of a "deliberate attack."

Whatever the cause of the disaster, it has exposed the uncomfortable and often unuttered truth that many Lebanese are still virulently racist.

23 migrant domestic workers from Ethiopia were onboard the ill-fated flight, along with at least seven airline crew members. The pilot was also Ethiopian.

In the absence of concrete facts, Lebanon's transport minister suggested that pilot error may have downed the plane, with the jet having undertaking "a very strange and fast turn" seconds before crashing.

This was all the information many media outlets needed. Naharnet, an English-language news site to be read with a shovelful of salt, carried the offensive headline: "Ethiopian pilot flew wrong way!"

The complete lack of evidence aside, it is certain that no such exclamatory tone would have been used if the pilot were Lebanese.

The inference here is simple: an Ethiopian pilot - silly him - ignored the learned Lebanese air traffic controllers (who have an exemplary record for departure punctuality) and his mad error killed 90 people.

Such scandalous journalese, however, pales in comparison to the appalling treatment of friends and relatives of Ethiopian passengers.

At Rafik Hariri International Airport, while wailing Lebanese family members were consoled by round after round of politicians, offered food and drink and drip fed information on victims as and when it was received, Ethiopian concerned were sidelined totally.

Desperate women, dressed in the scrubs which often adorn domestic workers, pleaded with authorities for information only to be shepherded into a separate room from Lebanese mourners.

DNA databases that will be used to identify mangled corpses are only being compiled from Lebanese blood samples. No Ethiopian has been asked to participate, even if relatives were on board.

A normally well-respected broadcaster conducted a live piece to camera outside a hospital with their Beirut correspondent on Monday night.

An Ethiopian, wracked with grief, unwittingly wondered into shot only to be literally hauled out of view by the Lebanese crew. Had she been Lebanese, it is unthinkable she would have been treated like this.

Much has been written on the plight of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. The relatives of one Ethiopian victim said that their daughter was on the way home to Addis Ababa for good after years of being beaten by employers.

To witness the neglect of friends and relatives left behind in Lebanon will offer Ethiopian families no comfort.

The BBC even commissioned a special report on the Lebanese diasporas in Western Africa. No such article was mooted for the reverse demographic.

It is entirely understandable for news agencies and civilians to take interest in their own nationals during times like this.

But to systematically sideline, even vilify Ethiopian victims, many of whom would have led a pitiful existence in Lebanon in domestic servitude, exudes exactly the opposite of the mercy relatives of Lebanese victims are pleading for.

In times of disaster, people let down their guard. The disaster of flight ET409 showed large parts of Lebanese society for what it is.

 

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